Small Businesses for Programmers
Programming is a super power. One thing I have discovered is that programmers can use this super power to create things that will make money! In other words you can build a small business. But what types of small business for programmers are there? Over the last few years I’ve done a lot of research and launched a couple of different experiments that have had varying levels of success. I’m not retired yet, so I obviously still have much to learn. I want to share some of these ideas from the perspective of a programmer. These are not the only ways to make money, but they are good low-risk and relatively low-cost ways to get started. I’m giving my thoughts on the amount of effort involved and the amount of reward that one could see from them. Of course, these are just my opinions. More effort applied to these ideas might result in more traffic/money. Or they might lead to no where. But I encourage you to think about and research these things. There’s lots of opportunity out there! Also, I’m leaving out a really important part of the business process which is deciding which audience you are serving (also know as which niche you are in). This is a CRITICALLY important decision to make early on, but for this article we are going to assume you already have one. If you would like to learn more about this,email me and I’ll start putting together a post with more details. So let’s dive into a couple of business types!
For me this is the dream. In a nutshell it’s this:
Find some data (ideally free), add your spin to it, sell access to it.
The best example of this is Eric Floehr of Firecastwatch who took weather forecasting data, compared to the actual weather, and sold the resulting product to allow people to “score” their meteorological data. Genius! Here is a great interview with Eric where he talks more about how he got started. Another spin on this is to take data that is out there and repackage it into a more usable format. Tyler Tringas did this with his StoreMapper application.
Speaking of Tyler, if you are interested in starting a SaaS business you owe it to yourself to read the book he is publishing online and for free. Others have used it to build their businesses and it is a great read: Building Micro-SaaS Businesses
- Getting data into a database and slapping an API in front of it? I call that a Tuesday morning! Could this be any easier to do?
- There is tons of data out there, and there always seems to be new ways to combine it.
- The overhead of running this type of operation is pretty minimal, so the cost (AWS, Google Cloud, etc.) should be really cheap to get started with
- There’s lots of resources out there to setup and run a DB+API+recurring subscription service
- There’s a million data sources out there, and not all of it is of good quality. So there might be a fair amount of work to beat the data into shape. Depending on your passion for the subject, this could be quite painful…
- Some data rots. If the data you are selling isn’t maintained (e.g. updated addresses for stores, etc) then people are going to stop making purchases.
- Not all of your potential customers will want to do some kind of pay-per-query API scheme.
- If you sell a downloadable version of your data it is possible that you will have a lot of one time purchases (as opposed to a recurring subscription)
I love this business model! There’s something so appealing about a self-service business that just sits there and does its thing. There’s a ton of data floating around out there, and from what I’ve seen a million ways to put it all together into something useful. To really make this one take off, try talking to other people who run businesses and find out what data they need. This will open your eyes to the possibilities that are out there. New people will being new perspectives and new chances for niche markets.
Drop shipping stores
Drop shipping is basically acting as a catalog. People come to your site, buy something, pay you, and someone else fulfills the order for a fee. Basically you become the middle man and markup the item to make your money. Pros :
- These days, most drop shipping sites have an API (or SDK of some type) so integrating them is really easy.
- There’s a million products to choose from! Any niche you can imagine will have a plethora of products for it.
- Getting traffic to your site is fairly easy: targeted ads will let you get high quality (read motivated)
- There’s a million people doing this. It can be hard to stand out from the crowd.
- There’s a million products to choose from. If there’s a hot selling item, a bunch of people will already be selling it. So niching down is necessary, but you need to make sure it isn’t so niche that no one buys it!
- I think there’s a danger of fads: a hot seller yesterday (fidget spinner) might not be so popular tomorrow. Building up good SEO takes time and it is possible that by the time you are ranking good the wave has passed.
I made one of these (to sell a nerdy poster idea) and it was pretty easy to get up and running. I sold exactly 0 posters though. I think a lot of that had to do with how I was marketing them (more on later). Even though my experiment flopped horribly, I still really like this idea and will probably revisit it in the near future to try again.
A service provider
Since we are technical people, the thought of running our own cloud based service seems like a nice logical step. Here’s a few examples of this:
- Wordpress hosting
- A VPN service
- Basically any kind of server that you can run in the cloud
Let’s break down the pros and cons of this type of business. Pros :
- If you are familiar with the technology stack, getting this up an running is really easy!
- If you can automate large portions of the service (such as self-service provisioning, billing) then it is pretty sweet and low maintenance. Which is really the dream!
- You can pretty much control how big you want this to be. Small niche service providers don’t have to worry about supporting the whole world. (On the down side, this can also limit your market which can limit how much you can make…)
- Just because something is easy for you, is it really something you want to do in your off time? Running a webserver sounds easy, but when it goes down on Black Friday and your customers start calling you wanting to know why they are losing sales… things could get stressful quick.
- Someone’s business might depend on your service… That’s kind of a stressful thought. Some people who go down this route wind up being on call all the time. That is quite a commitment, especially compared to doing that same work for an employer: at least they have a team to make sure things stay up and running.
- People tend to underestimate what it takes to take on an established provider. For example, if you are making a competitor to Dropbox, what do you offer that should make people choose you over them?
I’m technically running a WordPress hosting service at the moment. (I wasn’t intending to, but long story short, it just happened…) Once I got the initial configuration stuff figured out its been running pretty smoothly. This isn’t a money maker for me, but I’m also just doing the bare minimum to let it run on its own. With a couple hours of work, I think I could automate more of it and make it more secure, etc. and at least get it to the point where it generates a fair amount of money per month for me.
Affiliate links are basically a way for you to get credit for someone buying something. Its like saying “Hi, Nick told me to buy this book” and then the book seller giving me a few pennies for the purchase. There’s several different sites out there where you can get an affiliate link, but lets talk about the easiest one to get started with, Amazon. I don’t want to go into detail about how to setup your account with Amazon, do a search for that to find out how easy it is. The important thing I will note is that with Amazon, if someone clicks on your affiliate link and winds up buying something other than what you listed, you will still get credit for the purchase. That is pretty awesome. Once you have your affiliate account setup, then all you need it a way to get your links in front of people who will click on them. If you have an audience already (like a blog, or a large-ish following on social media) then those are the people that will be your targets. Find out what they are most interested in, create links to those products. Then with those links you can do things like this:
- Create reviews of products where you pepper in those relevant links. (The idea is people read the review for your expert take on it, and then can go and buy something letting you get credit for sending them shopping.)
- When ever you send out a link to an Amazon product, use your affiliate link. Example: If you are sending a friend a link to a tent you are thinking about buying, send the affiliate link. Yes, this is kinda sleazy and low volume. But if the link is going to get shared, its kinda neat to see what kind of credit you might get for sending it out.
- Respond on social media to people asking “What’s the best X for Y?” This is super easy to automate. More on that is a second.
- Make a bot that spews out these links on Twitter. I have 2 bots that are each tailored to different audiences. Every so often, those bots will inject an Amazon link to a book or a tool. As those bots grow their audiences, those links get more eyeballs and a higher probability that someone will click on them. This is a hands off thing that is just cool to see working. For an example of this, look at this twitter account (which reportedly is making quite a bit of money per month) https://twitter.com/48tweetsofpower
Twitter is fun and easy to automate. For the affiliate links, you could setup a rule on If This Then That to listen to twitter for a certain phrase like “Best cell phone case”. You can then setup if IFTTT to respond to the tweet with a tweet from your account that says “Oh my favorite case is this one, it’s awesome! “ This will result in auto-tweeting your link(s)! This is kinda neat, you could be making money without you having to do anything. I think this will appeal to a lot of developers like myself because it can be coded up and then measured and tuned for optimal performance….
Since there’s no such thing a free lunch, I feel I should mention some of things:
- Twitter supposedly doesn’t allow the same tweet twice. The example in the automation section above could result in your account getting blocked, etc.
- People generally don’t like talking to robots, so if your search (and your product your’re recommending) is too general then people are probably going to be more likely to report your account for spam.
- On the flip side, if your search/product is too niche, and no one hardly ever talks about it… your not likely to get a lot of traffic to your link.
- While there is real money to be made, I think most people will not make a lot with this approach. For example, I have a small audience for both of my bots and they only make about $5 to $10 a year with this. Without investing some serious effort into growing the target audience, I would not expect to get rich this way.
The dirty “M” word that makes it all work
I’ve mentioned a bunch of ideas for making money, but I haven’t mentioned the one thing they all need to make it work… marketing. Most developers think that marketing is a dirty, sleazy word. Well, the truth is, if no one knows about your offerings, then you are never going to make money. And the only way to let people know about you is to… tell them. Yes, you could wait for SEO to kick in and bring floods of traffic to your site… But I’m going to be honest with you: for that vast majority of us, that isn’t going to happen. You’ll get some traffic, but you won’t make any money. Think about this: big companies like CocaCola spend huge sums of money on advertising make sure you (and everyone on the planet) is aware of them. They also make an enormous amount of money every year. Coincidence? I don’t think so. So, my message to you is learn some basic marketing skills. You don’t need to be an expert in any of these skills, but learning be basics of each will help you move the needle so much it isn’t funny. These skills:
- Basic copy writing techniques (AIDA, Pain points, etc)
- Basic writing skills (formatting, passive vs active voice, etc.)
- Basics of how online ads/landing pages work
are easily google-able, and there’s a ton of free content out there to show you the ropes. If you want a really good introduction in one easy to read document, I highly recommend my friend Justin Jackson’s book Marketing For Developers. It is a great way to get start, Justin supplies a ton of ideas and practical examples that you can copy and get going with quickly. Justin also offers a course where he shows these techniques in more detail. I have bought both and have really gotten a lot out them. I highly recommend them.
Small business for programmers: so many choices
For the plucky programmer, there’s a bunch of choices out there for starting a business. Do some research, see what resonates with you. And most importantly, try a small experiment! Most of the things I’ve talked about here are low-cost, low-effort things that anyone can start pretty quickly. As a last bonus link, check out the Startups For The Rest Of Us podcast. It is hosted by two developers/entrepreneurs who offer their experienced take on various topics in this area. Scan through the titles and pick one that sounds interesting and give it a listen!