1) Do you have freelancing or other experience which has exposed you to multiple people with similar problems? For example, have you implemented the same "$()#% authentication system for a web application 20 times? Package up that one little piece of the puzzle into a scalable way to teach people to do it without needing to have you or someone similarly skilled on their team. Common form factors include ebooks. Sell the ebook. If you want to sell lots of the ebook, start by offering some free incentive to get people to trade you their email address, then send them email about $TOPIC for a while to make them trust you as an authority on it, then ask them to buy your thing. (Note: You don't have to be the world's leading expert on building authentication systems. You've just taken somebody's shilling to do it twenty times, which means that it is likely much, much cheaper for somebody to buy your thing and hand it to his junior developer than it is to pay a similarly-experienced engineer to do that part of the system.)
2) Failing that, talk to businesses. I could give you a vague fact pattern to ask about (a problem which is amenable to a solution with code) but people seem to get hung up on that so I'll give you something really specific: you are looking for a MS Excel spreadsheet which has ever been mailed by Bob to Cindy, had Cindy edit it, and mail it back to Bob. Every time this happens a SaaS app gets its wings. Now go out and find, in the actual physical world, ten firms which have that same darn spreadsheet. Offer to build them a software system which solves the business problem which that spreadsheet represents. Ask if they would pay (pick a number based on how big the firm is) $50 to $250 a month for it. If yes, ask them to commit to buying it when it is ready. If you get 5 commits, build it, sell to them (n.b. you'll lose some commits here), and then start trying to sell it in more scalable Internet-y ways.
3) Failing that, Bingo Card Creator, an app which does everything wrong in terms of business model and market selection, sold ~$1k a month something like 6 months after launch just because I got halfway decent at organic SEO. If you're willing to get good at one generalizable acquisition strategy (SEO, Facebook ads, AdWords, etc etc), with that wind behind you even turkeys can fly. (It often turns out that there are more lucrative options than pushing turkeys around.)
4) Find or create one proprietary data source which is not currently exposed to Google which answers a question that demonstrates commercial intent. Expose that proprietary data source to Google. The federal government has approximately 100,000 CSV files of interesting data which are not helpful to someone asking questions like (not a good example site, but a great example of there-is-an-answer-to-this-buried-in-a-free-CSV) "What is the median salary of mid-career dentists in Topeka, Kansas?"
How you monetize a site like that depends on the specifics of the niche and how savvy you are about it. Lead generation is very lucrative, if the question you're answering tends to suggest near-term commercial intent in something with a liquid market. If you want to make a lot less money in a braindead simple fashion, just slap adsense on it.
Also, I think I alluded to this above, but anybody capable of executing on any of these has ipso facto developed skills which can be employed by Real Companies with Real Budgets to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in marginal revenue. I know you said you want passive options but more active options, like selling consulting, are things that might well fit where you are in life a few years down the road.
I think it would be challenging to duplicate Patrick's extremely low-cost and synergistic SEO strategy with a SAAS offering that was not so text-centric.
Many people have reported to me that variations on it have worked out quite well for them. I mean, yes, you might spend 10X or 100X what BCC does on content creation (~$3k over 8 years), but that's very justifiable for a lot of SaaS businesses.
Other people report to me that they've had substantial success with similar strategies in SaaS.
But I didn't quite realize that going in. That's why I point out how elegantly conducive your product is to Scaleable Content Creation.
SEO is not just about content though. Huge part of Patrick's success comes from link building via his very popular blog and his personal brand, this is the part that I think is harder to replicate.
Example: not everyone wants to admit they have problems in their business, so you have to approach the conversation from an indirect angle.
(If you're a HNer, respond to the signup email and I'll give you an extra discount once it comes out.)
That's likely to cost you a few sales - particularly since you're in the "make money online" space, people tend to be a little hesitant to enable foreign code.
I've signed up, btw.
I'm using Launchrock.com btw.
1. "Find or create one proprietary data source"
Any other examples & how do you monetize on this?
2. "you want passive options but more active options, like selling consulting, are things that might well fit"
You're doing a great job at it looking at your year in review, but don't you need an established name with years of blog/material to get these sorts of rates?
The very first data set is health insurance estimates broken down by zip code. There's a super-lucrative market for you, but that one might be a bit competitive for you trying to crack it in 2013. Let's see, scroll down a few results...
That's a full listing of government programs which are designed to give people money. You could transform that opaque, disorganized CSV file into an easier-to-consume .org site to educate people on how to apply for government grants, right? And you could run ads on that site, right? (I think it is likely that the type of ads you'll get on that specific site would be scummy as heck, but there's another 75,000 CSV files listed on data.gov, so do a bit more searching and find a better one.)
1b) Assuming you have picked good questions to answer, you monetize by connecting people who have demonstrable interest in spending money to people they can spend that money with. That could be directly with you, if you have a product which answers their needs. It could be with other folks, via selling leads. It could just be with Big Daddy G, by putting AdSense on the site, bankrolled by people who have the business model that you haven't implemented yet.
2) I actually wound down the consulting business. Long story, but short version is that I want to focus more on my own stuff. Having years of material and successes I could point to certainly helped me land gigs, but way back in the day, the only thing I had going for me was that BCC appeared to work and I could explain why. If you hypothetically had a successful side project, that can probably be parlayed into "I could do something like this for you, where it will be substantially more effective because it will take advantage of the X, Y, and Z advantages your business has that mine didn't."
If you have a side project that's bringing in, say, $5000/year, and you do a few things to it such that it's now bringing in $5250/year, you've boosted revenue by 5%.
Now, go find a prospective client with a business bringing in $5MM/year, and explain to them how what you will do for them has the potential to increase revenue by $250k/year. Sure, it might not scale 1:1, but boosting it by even $100k/year should justify paying you, oh, $50k for the engagement.
That's how I (unenthusiastically) described my job as a Java developer in the first decade of the 21st century. Not sure if by now all Excel sheets have been "consolidated". In any case mobile apps seem to be the current wave.
Pardon me while I wipe tears from my eyes.
Not only are there plenty of spreadsheets still wandering about, but I wouldn't be surprised if many decade-old Java applications have reverted to spreadsheets, formally or under the table. ("Officially we have this website, but since the website guy left the company John actually tracks the definitive list of receivables in this Excel doc we keep on this shared drive; it crashes less often and it makes it easier for us to hand-build the new-format reports that have been required since 2010.")
Spreadsheets are actually great: Far more flexible and useful in the hands of "non-programmers" than any other software I've seen. I can't imagine spreadsheet-based prototypes vanishing from the earth anytime soon, though in the places I work for there is a noticeable tendency for the things to migrate from Excel into Google Docs.
That's basically Spreadsheets in the Cloud. They are upgrading to modern cloud-based software ☺
Although I admit I have no idea how it could be possible to create a bug free Excel sheet. It's funny that people avoid programming like the plague but somehow manage to produce Excel sheets, which seems to be a million times harder.
In other words, you will run out of inefficient business processes to help refactor sometime significantly after the heat death of the universe.