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Ask HN: What are the good old ideas that still make money on the web?
224 points by spIrr on Feb 12, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 167 comments
HN, i'm wondering, are there still any ideas from the ages of web 1.0 that are still working? For example, software license key stores etc. I feel like there are many of ones i couldn't think of as being still profitable. HN, i want some heavy TIL experience, please help me! :)

Not good ideas but lucrative: porn, pills, casinos, rebelling fraud, diet scams, Make Money Online, etc etc.

Oldies which add value and continue to make money: affiliates (travel, mortgage, credit cards, insurance, etc continue to print money, though barriers to entry are much higher than they once were). Lead gen remains a multibillion dollar industry.

There are many companies with six/seven/eight figure sales of unsexy software, not all of which is SaaS on a monthly basis yet. (Though it probably should be :) ). Time tracking, invoicing, collaboration, and all the other usual suspects for freelancers each support more than a dozen companies. Business productivity/communication/collaboration tools. There are thousand niche things you'd never think of if you didn't love a vertical to death. (e.g. Solving the problems of multi property landlords... with software. There's one guy whose supports four families with a very specialized spreadsheet wrapped in a Swing app.)

Traditional web page hosting continues to make money. (Not everyone loves VPSes or AWS. Your local bakery has to get on the net somehow...) There are ecosystems around e.g. wordpress themes and shopping carts for getting the Fortune Five million on the Internet. These support marketplace sites, affiliates, etc etc.

Niche publishing plus ads remains lucrative in many sectors. If you dominate the Internet for Christmas cookie recipes, that is about equivalent to a full-time job as a cookbook author. Every similarly sized field of human endeavor makes someone the 68% that Google isn't taking.

E-commerce still exists. Pick something you can buy: fishing rods, for example. Someone makes a living selling fishing rods online, I'll guarantee you.

I know this may sound like a dumb question...

But is it true that people still make money in porn online?

When is that business going to dry up? Aren't there 50 bazillion porn sites already? They can't all make money.

I know this is a sample size of one...but I don't pay for porn.

I ran a site once with lots of community content. Moderators worked for free and were just picked from the forums. Site was able to use as much bandwidth as I could get. We even started letting people donate hosting accounts and had a mirroring script they could run to help handle the bandwidth consumption.

So anyway, in my experience, traffic was easy to get and you'd make money if your revenue was greater than your bandwidth costs. Revenue came in from ads, donations, premium memberships with access to restricted areas and status in the forums, etc.. Re ads, pay per click is low, but affiliate stuff pays a lot - getting someone to sign up for a subscription to a high quality porn site nets big $$$ and there are always some people that have plenty of money and will pay more for better quality.

So anyway, if you see any good deals on bandwidth with no adult content restriction, I say go for it! :)

Porn is a $97billion industry worldwide, with the US only making up $13billion of that. The online share of this has been increasing as computers and internet have become far more common - and the privacy factor has helped as well. Depending on the site (single girl, live camera, niche content, adult "dating") they can be highly profitable with a high lifetime value per customer - enough where some of the affiliate programs pay out enough for yet a sub-industry to make a very decent living (I paid for my wedding this way - not ashamed to admit that).

When you say you don't pay for porn, do you torrent it, or do you use any of the "free" sites? If you are using the "free" sites - you are still generating someone revenue, even if it's a very small portion of it.

Firstly, even "free" porn makes money through ads. Lots of traffic x CPM always equals lots of money. Secondly, there is a huge business in high caliber and specialty porn. There are plenty of people out there with money to burn and a desire for something more specialized or higher quality than what you can find for free.

Edit: let me set up an exaggerated thought experiment for clarity. Imagine that the government commissioned a "one tru porn" project, creating a porn video that's a few hours long that is then hosted for free of charge for the world. It has all the normal sex acts anyone would want to witness, it has several very beautiful and very naked people in it, really, it's quite good. So why wouldn't everyone just watch that if they had a desire to watch porn? Quite simply put, because they want something else. They want a different experience, they want a different variety of people to look at, etc. The same phenomenon exists whether there is a small selection of free porn or a very large selection.

If nobody made money on porn, no new porn would be made. But there is tons of new porn being made. That money comes from somewhere.

My impression is that's largely a nickle-and-dime business (at least on the production side), but the lifestyle attracts people.

Direct subscription isn't the only revenue stream. I would imagine that ad revenue is a significant source these days.

There was a story a while back about a university that wanted to do a study on the effects of porn on men. I forget the specific thing they were looking for.

The study was cancelled because they couldn't find enough men who didn't watch porn for the control group.

There's plenty of eyeballs.

You are talking about this: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-12/uom-ate120109...

    We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn't find any.

But this is a different assertion (many people have consumed pornography once or a few times, but don't actively do it later in life), and this is canada (not USA)

You've hinted about the difficulties with affiliates before[1], can you elaborate on this? I'm starting an affiliate-supported business as a spare-time project and would love your thoughts.

[1] "Don’t look like an affiliate. Google is very ambivalent about affiliates" - http://www.kalzumeus.com/2009/08/06/landing-page-design-tips...

Big Daddy G basically sees most affiliates as bugs which, if fixed, would entitle them to an extra 100%+ on the purchase at issue over what they're getting currently. This results in a frenemy dynamic because affiliates also spend $$$$$$$$ on AdWords.

The space is pretty deep, I suggest reading on it if you care about it. In fact, it is an oversimplification to say there is one affiliate space, because there exist affiliate models which look as different as "startups" or "megacorps" do. Mint is about as different from most CPC arbitrageurs as Heroku is from Airbnb or McDonalds is from IBM.

My accidental knowledge about the space comes from hanging around with SEos for too long. Many of them make their money that way, since it offers a compellign way to monetize marketing skills without needing to have a product/business of one's own to promote.

> I suggest reading on it if you care about it


I'd be interested in this too. Also what forums are high quality for seo?

try http://www.webmasterworld.com for deep down, in-the-trenches type discussions and http://www.searchengineland.com for more editorially fashioned coverage

I wouldn't consider porn to be lucrative, unless you create the content yourself.. It's one big saturated market, unless you find a micro niche that hasn't been tapped into that much, I wouldn't really bother.

Seconded. I was just asked to project manage a porn affiliate site revamp. They were making $50k+/mo last year, but the niche is so narrow and well, frankly disgusting, that I'm having trouble getting any designer to commit.

Are you looking at designers on the GFY forums (certainly not safe for work for those who aren't familiar with it)? If not look there - they will be used to even the craziest of niches.

Thanks I actually just shot off an email to someone I met there. Totally forgot I had an active username on GFY.

In my, ahem, limited experience, it seems like a well-constructed site is very much needed. Most have only the most rudimentary, earlier-this-decade, styles of filtering.

I wonder if YC would take a porn startup?

Really? I thought porn led the way in many of internet's advances. (i.e. secure billing online, video streaming, security, etc.)

I'm certainly no expert, but the free *Tube sites I've seen are pretty ghetto. Maybe it's better once you start paying, but for instance I'm always seeing stuff I'd rather not in the listings for whatever category. It might be like dating sites, though, where the business model is to keep you on the site irrespective of why you're there, so there's no incentive to make things easy to find.

What is "rebelling fraud"? I'm asking out of purely academic curiosity. Is it rebilling fraud? Scammer charges people additional (usually higher than initial) fees they didn't consent to?

I believe it was meant to say rebills (in affiliate slang), the act of billing your credit card automatically for another service/product term. Frequently used in the Acai berry juice fad where they would send you another scheduled shipment automatically and bill you for it, and in online dating sites where they bill you every month continuosly if you don't explicitly cancel.

While unethical, it is not necessarily fraudulent since many times the rebill clause exists somewhere in the TOS/contract in very fine print or some obscure form.

I wonder if he meant rebilling fraud.

I think he meant rebilling.

Is there a good "algorithm" for discovering these needs?

Is it mostly CRUD software or are there more exciting opportunities? (Much of the draw of the startup dream for me is the chance to work on sexy non-CRUDdy stuff).

See, I think that's the problem. There are tons of opportunities in the boring CRUDdy stuff because the startup minded all flock to the exciting ideas.

And as a result, Joe the plumber doesn't get that app that would automatically tell him the best route to his next stop along with what tools to pull out of the van and SMS the homeowner that he's on the way.

I agree with almost all of what you said. But, I can't believe that time tracking is really that lucrative. Before I was on HN, I was on the JoS boards (I know you were also there).

I can remember a time when someone would debut a new time tracking app every week. I feel like this market is more than saturated.

Talk to Amy Hoy - her time tracking app grosses more than all three of my businesses combined and is growing like something growing very fast.

Is it possible that things like Freckle or even the 37signals stuff are more "fan based" businesses rather than stuff that people really need? More like "heck, I like these guys, why not pay them 20$/month"?

The real work then would be blogging a lot, going to conferences, socializing, to maintain the fan base.

It's not. We got a first surge of signups from people who heard about it because they followed us, but the vast majority of our paying customers have no freaking clue "who we are."

Amy, what is your primary marketing strategy? If you can talk about that of course.

Interesting, thanks!

In case you don't know who she is (I didn't) - http://unicornfree.com/

and the product: http://letsfreckle.com/

And how is that still possible? If there is huge a variety of time-tracking apps, how can you possible acquire a decent amount of customers? Verticals?

The other answers to this are good, but miss some fundamentals. Here are a lot of reasons why almost any SaSS idea you can think of will take off if you can find a way to market it for less than you charge for it.

1. New business are opening all the time. Every. Single. Day.

2. Most businesses go looking for solutions only when something is very painful. Convincing them of the need is something a lot of existing SaSS businesses don't do as there's so much low hanging fruit around still. If you can send a salesperson in, you win by default. You'll be amazed at how much you can charge for something.

3. Lots of businesses (the majority) are 5-10 years behind in the computerization of their business compared to any business you find mentioned here or any business you'll ever speak to at networking events for startups. That's pre-SaSS.

4. There are a lot of businesses where the internal IT dept wrote all the 'apps', they usually suck and are broken. More and more businesses are giving up on this model and buying the app off-the-shelf. A little customisability (logo, maybe colours, even name) goes a long way.

5. A lot of businesses still rely on some crappy Sharepoint or even Lotus or [insert unwieldy enterprise system here]. The internal people hate dealing with them and will switch to your system if you find someone with enough clout to sidestep 'the rules'. A 'department trial' is also a handy way in, some companies have very autonomous departments.

6. There's no such thing as an established SaSS businesses outside of the echo chamber of HN. Many businesses will not have heard of Salesforce, let alone basecamp. There's no such thing as an established time tracking tool for example.

7. Some 'great' apps are far too generic. New to do apps still come out every month

8. Marketing and designing your app for a particular market sector can give you a huge advantage over others. Just knowing the right words, phrases and acronyms to use gives you huge credibility with that market. Compare 'Project Management' to 'Project Management for Architects with full support for Drawing Issues and Revision Tracking'.

Before you embark on doing anything though, you have to accept that any business app you write is going to be incredibly complicated and you're going to have to fight to keep it simple as everyone wants to use it oh so slightly differently.

Just to add to your excellent list, a lot of verticals have an established software company that's stuck in the desktop world (e.g VB6/Access/etc, CD-ROMs, licence keys, etc) and is often clunky to use or old-fashioned looking.

The difficulty with vertical markets is cutting through all the jargon/assumptions and figuring out exactly what the business logic should be. Everyone knows what they want, but very few people can actually explain it to the uninitiated.

1 million times yes to this.

Think Power Builder, etc. Our company has purchased software with a Power Builder front end (mid nineties interface) to an Oracle backend for roughly a million up front and $100,000/yr in licensing.

We've subsequently built a web front end to this app in house.

Sometimes there is no good substitute for clunky software.

I'd add another bullet to your list.

Employees are also potential customers. They're usually expected to track their own time and enter it into the company system on a regular basis.

I don't think the employees are really interested in tracking their own time 'for real' and just fill in their timesheets as they do it every day.

You'd be surprised. I've had many coworkers who carried around dayplanners just to note the time and date they were asked to do something.

If you basically do the same job every day, showing up at 9 and leaving at 5, it wouldn't be for you. If you are working on multiple projects, it's a lot more useful. Especially if your employer has an SAP type time tracking system where the charge numbers are so ridiculously complicated. As a contractor for those kinds of companies, I've always struggled with keeping track of how much time I've spent on any given day among the projects I was responsible for.

Then there are other types of professionals, like lawyers, who have to keep track of multiple tasks on any given day for billing purposes.

Point being, there are still plenty of potential customers for time keeping apps. Maybe not enough to get rich, but enough to help make a living.

Do you have proof? Because I have proof that you're wrong, and the proof itself lines my pockets every month :)

Get 500 people to pay you $30 a month. Now you're making close to $200k a year - most likely a lot more than you would make consulting or playing the startup lotto. That's the basis of Amy's 30x500 course (disclaimer: I gladly paid > $1000 to take it).

Think about it: 500 people. That's fucking nothing. My upcoming niche project management tool has more people than that on the pre-release list (granted - only a percentage of them will turn out to be paying customers), but it's a great start.

Simply find some pain that needs to be solved, build a product around it, create an offer (give me $X and I'll give you Y) and profit. Take Amy's class if you want a kick in the ass to help realize that.

Finding a niche might not be an issue these days. I am interested to know how do you opt for certain niche while it's not your main field either.

Be the first that supports multiple devices (PITA) and multiple browsers (except IE7 and before?).

Beautiful design (niche for those who marvelled at apps by their design).

Figure out SEO.

I think Amy and her husband are quite popular internet celebrity among bloggers. Turn these into your customers. This is important: if you have quite a few readers, think of how to turn them into money (let's not go into argument about purity, don't be evil, and that kind of bull-shitake).

On the flip side: whether her number is for real or not, I cannot say until I see the accounting by my own eyes. When it comes to money, pageviews and whatnot, I don't believe 100% as-presented. I might believe 95%, but definitely not 100%.

You can still strike big even if you're not first. Google and the iPod weren't first. Microsoft & Blackberry had smart phone OSs for years before the iPhone, etc. etc.

I'd guess by having a quality product with good design. Time tracking is definitely over-saturated, but Freckle is a simple, powerful product with great design. That makes it makes it much easier to stand out.

_neil is right. Freckle is simple (you can track time without the hassle of creating a project) and powerful (the multiple ways you can see your data is awesome, especially the "pulse" screen) with great design (its very pretty). That said, there's more features I'd love to see, but they are constantly improving the product, so its only a matter of time.

If you (or, okay, I) can create a new product which has certain selling points, and gain quite a lot of customers, how is the market still considered "over-saturated"?

I make my living exclusively in "over-saturated" or "nobody will pay for that" markets. Which so far has worked out just fantastically.

My first foray into an "over-saturated" market was a Mac news, opinion & tutorial site back in the late 90s. Every single person I talked to said the market was over-saturated, that nobody would read it & more importantly, I wouldn't get any advertisers. They were all wrong.

How CAN'T you acquire a decent amount of customers? The world is so much simpler and easier than you think it is. Maybe that sounds like hand-wavy BS to you, but it's simply the facts. Freckle grows even when we ignore it. We don't "do" verticals.

You're assuming that variety means people are satisfied. But as a rule, people are never satisfied, and rightfully so since most software is crap.

Who? Sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but there's no name recognition there...I had to search and found her to be someone pitching herself as a "product crusader."

Don't worry, you're not the only one.

This is one example. There is one example of almost every niche that is really successful.

Amy would know better than I do, but she says Freckle has at least three larger competitors. It is also something like 2.5 years old (i.e. it achieved success way after I though that market was saturated).

Here are some of the companies making much than us:

Harvest (look at the size of their team; and for web apps, they are old!)

Mite (the last time they posted about revenue, it was more than double ours, presumably that trend has continued)

Freshbooks (they do more than just time tracking, but they are a chief "competitor" if you want to call it that… and they make bank)

I strongly suspect that RescueTime and Intervals have greater revenue than us as well.

…and probably many more… these are just the "cool" ones which I know about. I'm sure there are many tools for specific industries or who are otherwise entrenched who make ridiculous amounts of money.

It is the easiest thing in the world to dismiss something by saying "nobody would pay for that" or "they must be unusual if they're making money" or "it must be because they're famous." None of these things are true. But they sure are easy to believe and even easier to say, discouraging yourself and others.

Also worth noting that time tracking has multiple angles. It can also be used in the context of employee time cards for human resources. A while back I was working with a nonprofit trying to find a legitimate timecard web app or downloadable software and found that most were horrible. Most looked like they hadn't been updated since 1997 and had horrific design/clunky UI.

Most of them were also pretty expensive and charged per user, when this org had less than 15 employees and couldn't afford to pay $100/month just to track timecards.

It seems like there could still be a definite way for someone to get into this and build something really sleek and new, especially when you consider how many ways you could improve on it, like offering nice looking reports to the HR department, exporting of the time data to a variety of HR software, etc.

Time tracking is't by any metrics a solved area yet. There will be even more approaches in the coming years.

Two things promise to keep the area interesting.

1. Time tracking have to be automated. I think I found an way to do that which is actually going to work.

2. Project need to move away from time based projects and more towards deployment tracking. This one won't be solved anytime soon cause of corporate structures.

It's going to be one of the most interesting spaces to watch within the B2B area IMHO

There are a lot of todos apps out there from Thing to RememberTheMilk to Trello (list of lists? more like todos of todos :))

It's a saturated market so you better have some sort of other advantages before marketing such product.

This is a simple logical error: "It seems like lots of people are doing it, therefore the market must be saturated, therefore nobody will make any money."

In the face of credible testimony from somebody you presumably trust (since patio11 has such a sterling reputation), why would you insist that "you can't believe it"?

It staggers me how many people when hearing about my success come up with ways to minimize it, to say it's not possible, it's a fluke, they don't believe it, they can't believe it, etc.

I'm going to say something trite, then try to explain it.

"Ideas are useless"

A business is a combination of dozens of little ideas supporting a large one. The large one could be anything. Maybe it's a "good old idea." Maybe it's something new and freaky.

Doesn't matter. You get zero useful information from the large idea. It's the dozens of supporting ideas -- the execution model -- where the money is.

So you can take something done to death and make really good money off of it. Or something totally new and unique that people might want -- and screw it up. (Most likely screw it up in either case.)

Maybe a better question would be "Which broad categories of web money-making ideas are hard to screw up?"

I'd be interested in that one too. :)

From many years of HN-watching, I find lots of folks more than willing to blog and go on at length about the broad-but-useless ideas. It's extremely rare that you actually get a peak into how the cookies are made.

Thank you, this would be a better title for the question i was essentially thinking of. :)

I quitted my job 1 year ago and basically set out to make my own living on the Internet. I went from making an adsense-supported website offering free gift certificate templates to a Body Mass Index calculator with affiliate revenue, an online guide to help choose travel insurance, and now a SAAS offering for sending large files for small companies.

All of these websites make money to some extent. However I found the process of developing niche websites not to be too enjoyable (lots of focus on specialized content, nitty-gritty of building links for SEO etc) which is why I now try to focus on the SaaS file sharing solution.

If you want some money on the side, then niche sites are a good way to educate yourself on how to do it. On the matter of how to choose a specific niche, I found the ebook by Rob Walling (start small and stay small) to be a real eye-opener : http://www.startupbook.net/

Also, I would recommend you to check out http://www.flippa.com every week or so. You can see which websites are selling, and try to understand why they're successful and hopefully using this knowledge to advance your own ideas.

Flippa is useless and Lot of cheating happens. I am a victim of it. Will write a blog on it later. But stay away from it. IMO, warrior Forum and DP Forum are best places for buying/selling.

I haven't actually bought anything or sold anything there. But I check it once in a while to see how fast people have developed profitable websites, in which niche, using which link building methods, etc.

IMO it's valuable knowledge for somebody who wants to make money on the web.

+1 on Rob Walling's book. It contains brilliant advice in an almost formulaic fashion for researching, building and launching a software product for sale online.

Um, depends on how you define making money. Is $60K making money? What if I told you that the author puts in less than 5 hours a month to make $60K a year? Is that making money?

If that is your definition, then the answer is "everything". If your definition is "lots of money" then the answer is, as always, very few things which are a lot of hard work.

Tell us more about that 5 hour per month thing, please. You know, a lot of people from developing countries, including myself, find $60k a very big pile of money.

That person makes $60K/year from 5hours/month but you can't imitate him. It's not really time = money. He is using some kind of personal/company brand that took years to build. There is value, but it's not in the time he is putting.

Okay. An example: Spend 10 years building knowledge and reputation on some field and become really good at it. Then give a one monthly paid talk at some conferences. That goes $5K/talk. Pretty much achievable. You can even make more, depending on the experience and value you bring.

Nope. Not even close. Anyone on here could write it in two days but they'd all dismiss it because it's too small minded.

That's a great deal of money for most people in a developed country too. Especially for about one week of a full time job per year.

Yeah, I'm skeptical that it's reproducible.

he probably sells E-books on how to do it ;)

Might hold the occasional workshop too.

Step 1: Find problem/customers and figure out how to use google to get them to you

Step 2: Solve problem in a high-quality, maintainable, relatively bug-free way

Step 3: Charge a lot (so you don't need as many customers)

Except to add new features, you can literally watch the money roll in since you've somewhat automated getting the customers. And don't do stupid things like iPhone apps.

As an Internet citizen, there goes my 2012 bill estimates

- Desktop Software (around $1,000)

- Hosting + Domains (around $300)

- SaaS (around $50)

- Mobile Apps* (around $5)

That should give you an idea where my money goes. I still believe that desktop software has lots of potential. Especially, when your target market is educated about purchasing a license. You eliminate the server costs and their data maintenance.

*My (probably) only purchase will be for AirSync (doubleTwist) on Android.

> I still believe that desktop software has lots of potential.

Shhhh... don't let anyone in on the secret. :-)

I'm glad that everyone is now looking at the mobile space for the next pot of gold. More room to maneuver in the desktop space (where many companies spend most of their money each year).

What kind of desktop software have you bought? It's kind of hard fighting in that arena when you are just starting, you don't have enough visibility and there is lots of competition with alternative (but not as good fit) products.

If you're looking for a product idea; here's one that I have thought of since it's something that both I and enough other people have wanted that I think it's profitable.

A simple invoicing and shipping application, SAAS at a fairly low rate for tiny businesses.

You need to be able to enter customer data and product/service info, generate a nice, printable invoice and envelope and also offer the option to email the invoice. On the ship side, it should print out a packing list and a shipping label. Bonus points if it an print USPS postage paid labels, or FedEx, or UPS.

A very simple app to be sure (so why the hell haven't I done a basic version for myself yet but still keep doing it manually???) but I've seen enough people online looking for this that I'm convinced it's worthwhile. Go build it and make millions with my blessing!

You should look into http://www.freshbooks.com/ I use this for my invoicing needs, and they do offer to send paper invoice as you describe. They have awesome customer service and the people behind the company are great too, I think they send a cake to a randomly selected new subscriber every month.

I have tried Freshbooks. Nice service, but it only does the invoicing part, leaving me to do the packing list + labelling myself. The service I want/should program myself does both automatically.

Maybe I'm not understanding you correctly but Freshbooks has a service that will print out the invoice, pack it, and send a physical envelope to the client on your behalf. You don't need label or pack, they will do this for you for an additional charge.

Freshbooks is great for long-term clients. I don't think it's adequate for one-off invoicing in an e-commerce type situation.

My college roommate and I embarked on a social network(elephantunderground) to change the way people collaborate/share/media online. This was before RoR and much of the web advances. It was more ambitious than we were able to handle honestly. Then we created yourbarguide. A bar scene type yelp social network competing with Yelp but we could not monetize. He went on to create an online store called Revzilla and is CRUSHING IT. Selling Motorsport gear. Found a nitch(there were no real competitors), had the knowhow, and is growing like a weed. Sell something, drop ship, and grow!

My 21-year-old roommate sells security devices on a website he updates in Dreamweaver. Parts of it break on my 9" screen. Makes good money.

With certain audiences, forums are still popular and profitable. For example http://candlepowerforums.com is still the place to go for advice on flashlights, and has a thriving marketplace and following.

Wow. I can't believe there is forum dedicated to flashlights!

Just wait till you find http://edcforums.com - dedicated to the things you carry on your keys, more or less.

On the other hand, flashlights are not that cheap, if you think of a decent xenon/led light in the middle to upper class. So have to think a bit before you make your choice about a flashlight.

If you think flashlights are expensive. Go checkout CPF, it will blow your mind. I was a member for quite a while, and those people SERIOUSLY love their flashlights.

Flashlight porn: http://i78.photobucket.com/albums/j95/schiesz/XR19%20Ti%20PD... [SFW]

Assuming that's the flashlight I think it is (mcgizmo haiku?) - it's actually a bit of an interesting response to this question in its own right.

AFAICT, mcgizmo is one guy, who builds ultra high end flashlights. I believe his only sales channel is the aforementioned candlepower forums. He seems to do rather well with it. HDS systems is another flashlight maker that's one guy. Not as high end as mcgizmo (they run up to about $200). He even has his own (design circa 98) website. And it's apparently working for him - orders were backed up for weeks when I ordered mine.

A few people, making a product for an extremely narrow niche.

You're right that its a McGizmo, and one of the more coveted Titanium models. I believe that light retails for about $699. On the CPF secondary market it could easily go for more than that. There are also a couple other business that sell parts and accessories for custom flashlights who survive almost solely from the patronage of CPF members. See The Sandwich Shoppe: http://theledguy.chainreactionweb.com/index.php [Warning: Truly terrible design]

The more I think about it people will dump tons of money into their very niche hobbies. And the internet has only recently given people with niche interests a place to gather and hawk their projects and products. Look at how successful Kickstarter has been, doing something similar. I don't have any idea how much money Kickstarter itself is making, but they have certainly enabled people to make a decent profit on their projects that may otherwise never see the light of day.

I agree there is certainly money to be made in these extremely narrow niche markets, but is it really a sustainable living? I ran a couple projects selling flashlights or flashlight pieces on CPF, and I always broke even or made money, but I certainly couldn't have made a living doing it.

I've never seen McGizmo's financials, but I assume he makes a good chuck of change. However, I think he is the exception. He has set himself apart from everyone else and can charge whatever he wants. Maybe thats an answer to the original question in its own way too. But I really think people like McGizmo and PhotonFanatic make flashlights because they love flashlights, so its ok if they aren't making a ton of money doing it, but if they do, even better. I guess you can just lump this argument in with the do what you love crowd. but heh

I think you're absolutely right. I've been a CPF member for a few years and I look at people like McGizmo and their flashlights as artists and their art. They work hard at producing something they enjoy creating and once in a while someone with lots of money purchases one. It's an enjoyable way to make a living, but you probably won't get rich doing it.

IOW, just the kind of thing I would love doing :-)

Another example is Peter Atwood, who makes small production runs of knives and tools. His stuff sells out right away, which tells me he could charge a lot more than he does. High end knife makers like Busse are the same way but aren't just a single person.


Rule 34a: there is a web site for everything.

I think forums are here to stay because they already have the community, i don't know how a newly created forum can evolve like it could have if it has been started several years ago. Although i constantly feel a lack of a dedicated community for several topics...

Subreddits are the new forums.

Except for the few large ones, subreddits are extremely small, compared to their forum counterparts.

I have a little bit of a funny story regarding web 1.0. In 1996 or so, my then grade-school age son put up a web page on one of my sites with his then favorite subject, the Goosebumps book series. Somewhere along the line, I helped him add a few ads and he maintained the page for a bit, but he eventually lost interest. Now, 16 years later the page hasn't been touched for at least 11-12 years, but it continues to bring in a couple of bucks per month from the ads. And my son went on to get a job at Google. So, good investment all the way around!

Nice stories for your son to share with his grandsons.

I'll repeat some of the other answers here, while giving examples from my own company and industry. I'll provide numbers when possible.

You can still make money by taking: (a) a moderately-sized vertical (excluding hackers & developers)

(b) and doing any/all of the following:

- Web hosting

- Email newsletters

- Forums


- Publishing tools (web & print)

- Ecommerce

Ok, now details from my own industry (professional and semi-professional photography).

Web hosting: at BIG Folio, we provide web hosting for photographers. We host the sites we build as well as WordPress blogs. We charge $20/month with very low space/bandwidth limits. If we tried to be a generic host, there's not way we could compete with GoDaddy at those prices. But in a vertical, people don't mind. Even though we use expensive, managed servers from Rackspace, our margins are really good.

Email newsletters: Take a look at Photojojo's ad rates: http://photojojo.com/advertising/. $6K for a 1-week sponsorship.

Forums: We advertise on one paid forum that is focused on only wedding and portrait photography (a vertical of a vertical). They have roughly 5,000 members that pay $100/year + they get good advertising rates and run an annual convention. You can do the math on that.

SEO: If you know SEO and/or social media, my guess is you could easily make $50K or more by publishing an ebook on "SEO & Social Media for [insert vertical]". I published a DVD on SEO for photographers a few years ago. I pressed 1,000 copies at Discmakers and sold them all within 18 months ... for $79/each. http://photographyseo.com

Publishing tools: This could be anything from website tools/CMSs, WordPress themes, or even tools for printing (yes, people still print stuff). One of our competitors just sells a "WordPress theme for photographers" ... they get $200 for a theme that is no better than themes you buy for $29 on Theme Forest. I know people that sell Photoshop templates for borders, albums and greeting cards. In my recent foray into restaurant tools, I've notice that a lot of people search for restaurant menu templates (the kind you print). I could go on and on in this section, but just know that people have all sorts of web/print/mobile/social publishing needs and are willing to pay for it.

Ecommerce: Not selling things directly but helping people sell things and taking a fee. We do this at NextProof (nextproof.com). We take 7-12% of sales and it's the lowest I know of in the space. The forum I mentioned above has a classified ad section and it's one of the few places I trust to find used camera gear. People are used to giving Apple 30% and Groupon 50% of their sales. I think there's lots of room to monetize (either through fees or ads) a vertical sales platform, classified system, or "Shopify for [insert vertical]".

My friends link building business (http://BacklinkSERP.com) is also earning him cool ~1500$ per month. He sits and markets site, gets the job done from his supplier and makes cool profit. Thats Awesome.

Awesome, this is some superior reply giving a very good insight about your industry! Thank you! My question is, is there something specific about the photography vertical which makes all the sub-niches so lucrative? For example, email newsletters: is it so popular because of the heavy amount of photography tutorials, articles, etc. available on the web and only a few other industries would experience this kind of demand in newsletters? I think photographers are the most heavy consumers of online tutorials and articles along with hackers and designers.

Every vertical has it's unique qualities–and photography is no different. Obviously, being a mostly digital and visual industry, there are lots of opportunities for online education and tools.

And, yes, there are tons of tutorials on the web–although I find many of them aimed at hobbyists or Photoshop users.

There are also a ton of in-person workshops in the industry. I know wedding photographers that make more money every year doing workshops than they do actually shooting weddings.

Given all that, I think there's still lots of room for professional-level education in the industry. Having done a lot of photography myself, I can tell you there's skills/techniques I've only been able to learn from some of the paid forums.

Thanks, that was a great answer.

Convinced me to do just that, take my handfull of "web 1.0" sites that focus on 2 verticals (and to answer the original question of this thread: that earn me some 2K USD a month in advertisement without doing anything) and build a collection of services around them.

Could you please elaborate on this? What are the "types" of your sites? Thank you!

Hey ed, you briefly mentioned your foray into restaurant tools. I'm interested in this area - can you elaborate a bit more on what restaurant tools are lacking in your opinion, or in general, what problems restaurants are facing?

It's been tough, so far. All I can tell you is that (a) restaurant owners have ZERO time to learn or use new tools and (b) they just want to get more people in the door.

What blew me away was hearing that restaurants in my town are getting hit with 2 to 5 people per day trying to sell them on some coupon or daily deal gig. And I don't even live in a big city!

I've gotten decent traction on the website front so far (cilantrosites.com) but I've also run into some language barrier issues (a lot of ethnic restaurants with ESL owners). I've tried coupon subscriptions (think BirchBox meets Groupon) but none of them wanted to give up 2-for-1 coupons. Next I'm trying some Facebook page tools ... seems promising so far (we've got 2 customers at $99/mo and several leads this week).

Here's one that I'm aware of that's a local start-up here in Pittsburgh.


At it's simplest, it's just a waiting list for restaurant patrons. But it eliminates the need for pagers, which saves the restaurant money. It alerts people by SMS, which means people don't have to be onsite, they could be next door shopping while they wait. It's also tracking all sorts of metrics that you previously didn't have access to.

The best part to me, is that a lot of the restaurants using it have also tied this data into their websites. So I can hop on, say http://www.burgatorybar.com/ , and see what the current wait time is.

Agreed. Except your first rule (A) is broken. We make lots of money off hackers & developers. It's time to retire that old saw that "developers don't buy." They do, lots of them.

I should have qualified that statement. I have no personal experience selling to developers and I think many of things I listed in (B) are either harder or impossible to sell to developers.

Because hackers/developers work at a lower technical level than others, they usually don't need niche web hosting ("I'll just spin up a Linode VPS"), web publishing tools ("I'll just hack together the HTML/CSS myself"), or SEO guides ("I'll just search HN for SEO tips").

The companies that successfully sell things to hackers do other, specialized things (think GitHub, Linode, Stripe, etc.). You don't make money selling any of the items I listed do you?

Not sure if it's still profitable but I used to know a few people who would rent dedicated servers and sell shared PHP hosting to small businesses. See http://www.webhostingtalk.com, http://forums.cpanel.net/forum.php and http://www.directadmin.com/forum/.

I tried this and couldn't really get off the ground... it's a very saturated market, do you mind sharing any ideas?

Go vertical, even if it's all just a web host in behind. For example "Web hosting for dental cabinets". Of course something with value added over the host may work better


Content | Ads

Confirmed. I make $100 per month with this exact formula on my blog, which I update about once every 2 months.

One of my smaller sites is like this. Five short pages, about 30 page views per day, and makes $100+/month. I haven't changed the content in a couple of years.

Have got another that makes 20-30x that and I spend no time on it.

wow.can I check those sites to get some idea?

Just for reference, roughly how many people visit your blog per day?

1500-2000 visits per day. http://www.puremango.co.uk. I rank highly for some good terms like "hacking facebook" and "how to hack", but my long tail is also very long.

TechCrunch profiled a company called Mind Candy recently that is dominating a market in the UK you might not immediately think of a big money spinner: social gaming for 6-10 year olds.

The money comes from subscriptions and... merchandising. Lots and lots merchandising. To the tune of $100 million dollars last year and growing.


Selling pet food.

Someone seems to think nandemo is joking, so to clarify, there exists at least one HNer whose business does sell pet food over the Internet. They tried to hire me at one point.

Yeah yeah, pets.com blew up. Banks have gone bankrupt before, too: that doesn't mean banking can't make money.

Yes. There was nothing especially wrong about the idea of selling pet food online then; another company started by selling books (a worse idea if you ask me) and they did go fairly well.

That's not to say that it's a good idea to start an online pet food business now. By now the margins must be pretty low. But it is an "old" idea for which the market is still big.

The problem Pets.com had was trying to build a billion dollar company selling pet food online. There is nothing wrong with selling pet food today as long as you stay lean and focus on the niche items and or bulk.

Exotic pet food (Squids) + supply's + information. Bulk shipments of food + breeder information for show dogs.

PS: I have a friend who has been making good money selling cookies online. It's a classic small business with a few workers in a low cost of living area, and it's been steadily growing for a while now. (http://www.thebestcookie.com/) There secret IMO is simply high quality and high minimum order sizes.

Your friend needs to learn some things about SEO. If you look at the bottom of his site, there are about 40 different domain names that all point to the same content.

This is a huge duplicate content issue, and there are much better ways to target multiple keyphrases.

If i understand you correctly, one does have to pick a big industry, pick a niche, (sell in bulk,) combine it with something else to add more value compared to similar products?

All companies make money by adding value, the goal is to maximize value created while minimizing the cost and then benefit by charging people based on that gap. The niche is really the type of value your creating and you need to pick a niche is the correct size for your needs and capital. There is a world of difference between the ideal niche for a collage student trying to make some beer money, an unemployed coder trying to make rent, and 3 collage friends who just got 2 million in funding. The smaller the company the more nuanced it's approach and the smaller the niche, can be. What might look like a product feature to Microsoft may support 5 different tiny software companies all going after different angles.

The specifics relate to the market and the kinds of product sold. You are not going to make money shipping individual 50lb bags of dog food to people, but you might be able to make money shipping pallets of dog food to people. Things like building communities or creating content are really just another form of advertizing that is theoretically cheaper to create in the long run than Adwords.

> another company started by selling books (a worse idea if you ask me)

Nope, IMO it's f*cking perfect. Having worked for a book distribution company: the item is easily packaged, it's easily identified by the purchaser (no brand confusion), it's easy to use with no support costs, all items from the publisher are sale-or-return - any excess inventory goes straight back to them rather than clogging the store's shelves if it doesn't sell. Amazon also used the Internet to overcome the traditional problems with book distribution: which titles to carry and market, because there are so many. Just carry all of them.

You forgot one of the most important details: Books have a high cost:weight ratio -- between $10 and $200 per lbs -- which ensures that shipping costs stay reasonable. Pet food tends to be around $3/lbs.

Even better, books can be sent "media mail" for even cheaper rates.


I buy dog food online - rotations. I think the company struggled selling through traditional distribution so they went direct by selling online. It's a great business model. They have a differentiated message(it's bad to feed your dog the same exact food for its entire life) and the prices are comparable to premium dog food purchase in a store.

Just go to any company and see what they do poorly. Ask them what problems they face.

Working in TV in the past, you would not believe the hassle phone numbers and email addresses were.

I would've killed for a spreadsheet-like layout for contact info that userbased contact lists, department based, then company based. Bonus points if you let people pick up the phone, then click to dial out.

Or, working in a relay center now, I have to wonder why no one has created a simple TTY automated menu system for the deaf. Sell it to companies, let them associate an 800 number to that line, and deaf people could call in and navigate themselves, largely rendering my job obsolete. (Well, when someone also does a good voice-to-TTY mobile app.)

I think turnkey website scripts (mostly in php) are doing well. People that want url shortners or image hosts or some such things can buy a turnkey website for $50 or something. I know a few people who make money from scripts like this.

It takes a hell of a lot of $50 websites to pay an average programmer's salary

True, but the average programmer typically has to show up for work at least 40 hours a week, while "passive income" like selling off-the-shelf WordPress themes doesn't take up your whole week. It can also be done by people who don't have particularly extensive programming skills.

5 per day.

I think the hidden subtext behind this question is "what are the good old ideas that still make money on the web THAT SOMEONE CAN BUILD ON THEIR OWN?" At least that's a question that half of the replies answer and one that I'm also interested in answering. Most of what I do can only be done to make a livable amount of money when done at a company with other talented people to fill in for aspects of the business that can't be covered by an individual even if they had all the necessary skills if only because of the limited amount of time in a day. Any ideas for the lone wolf?

You can solve problems in any space, as long as you think about the problem first, and not about the exact kind of solution you want to make. I can't think of any problem space where the lone programmer can't do something useful if they have the domain knowledge.

Clickbank. Seriously, i made a few bucks using it. Unfortunately, i could not redeem the money as i was 17 and now I forgot my account username. Also, you can buy domains names which are somewhat related to the current web phenomenon and then sell them at a much greater price. (eg. the domain fb.com was bought by Facebook for $8.5 million)


Designing, building, and maintaining websites for businesses.

Buying up second hand books in bulk (think 5k+) and selling them individually on the Amazon marketplace. Incredible markups. Need lots of storage space though.

content is king! as it always has been. If you have fresh, unique content about your passion, damn sure there are a stack other people looking to find out that information.

As cheesey as it sounds,I personally think you are better off not chasing the money, but fulfilling your mission, be that success or failure and learning from that experience and doing better the next time.

Creatng a downloadable product and selling it :)

Requires you to have some expertise with Adwords and Facebook ads, otherwise you'll blow tons of money attempting to generate leads and sell nothing. It can work though.

Sell business cards. No matter how big or small, rich or poor, established or not, the startup, they will always buy some. =)

There's relatively OK money to be made from repackaging OSS and making it easier to use.


If possible, could you expose any more details on this? It it more re-packing like bundling it with other software, or just using your own logo, or more like customizing? Many thanks in advance!

Classifieds : cars, jobs, houses...

people search

huge market and growing (growing with every new person which gets online, with every new person which gets into employment ready age)

dominated by a few big players, just waiting for smaller niche players.

the only downside is, that you get about 5 "i will sue you" emails per day if you reach a certain size (just ignore them,....)

said that: www.facesaerch.com is for sale

Why do people want a 'people search' in the world of google & facebook? Also what's the business model?

why? google and facebook are a distribution channel for people search. just google the name of you mother, grandmother, father in law, anyone not in the nerd, hacker, geeks segment and show what turns up (note: on the resulting pages, turn off your ad-block)

in non US countries the business model is mostly ads (from the sh*tload of pageviews), in the US the business model is mostly affiliate (delivering traffic to the thousands premium "criminal record / financial record background check" companies)

People don't always use their legal name on facebook and not everyone has enough online presence to show up on google. Peoplesearch pulls data from many sources e.g. your electric/water/broadband company.

Selling things (e.g. Amazon).

Payment Processing.

Wondering, are there any vertical niches in payment processing? For me, the average customer of a payment processing company is a business owner who is capable of selecting a good provider (paypal for being around for ages or stripe for being loved), so how do other payment processors survive?

Digital River, who basically consolidated nearly every payment processor for shareware devs, has revenues revenues in the nine figures. (Oh, by the way, shareware the word is pretty much dead but selling software on the Internet makes more money every year.)

Patrick, i sincerely want to thank you for participating in this thread. I feel like you have the accumulated amount of knowledge everyone trying to do business both online and offline has to know (or, at least, trying to). Do you ever feel like you are not using your knowledge in full or allocating it properly?

Suffice it to say I know a few things about a few things and get enormous satisfaction from sharing them with people. I'm privileged in that a couple of things I know how to do are worth stupid amounts of money, and perversely the more I try to give them away the more money gets thrown at me for them, so my businesses essentially allow me a lifestyle similar to that of a tenured professor except with less academic politics and an even more flexible schedule. Downside: a regrettable lack of cool faux-medieval robes to wear once a year.

I'm pretty happy with the pace at which I'm getting to take on new challenges, and pretty happy with my net impact on the world, including through building stuff and teaching folks. Besides, I'm not even 30 yet, so I've still got plenty of time to achieve total world domination through smoothing out market inefficiencies on the Internet. (I think I'll hire a tailor to get me robes as that point. Something in silk maybe.)

> Downside: a regrettable lack of cool faux-medieval robes to wear once a year.


That could be remedied ;-)

Seriously, though, I wanted to say thanks too.

Patrick, let's fund the 21st century blend of the Rotary Club/Skull and Bones/freemasons/"secret society" just so we can wear robes :)

I nominate thee honorary head, benevolent tyrant for lyfe.

You guys could play bingo!



Buying and selling goods and arbitrage still make money. It's not easy and takes awhile to figure it out, but it's not a bad way to make money.

This is what I'm doing while building my startup. I arbitrage web services on Craigslist and other marketplaces. The difficult part is figuring out what makes money and finding reliable service providers.

It took me over a year of trial and error to finally settle on what I have now. It will never make me a million dollars. But I have more than enough time to work on my startup and I don't have to work a FTJ or consult (which I've tried and really don't like).

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