If today's economy has left you in need of more cash, consider this emerging trend: Millions are using the Internet -- and a minimal amount of time -- to bring home extra bacon.
Whether delving into e-commerce or selling ad space on a blog, Internet sellers often benefit from a rock-bottom initial investment, the convenience of working wherever and whenever they please, and the freedom of being their own boss.
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However, before you quit your day job, it's important to consider the potential pitfalls of selling on the Internet. These include startup time, extenuating costs and stiff competition.
"There are a lot of people trying to do the same thing," says Robert Spector, author of the book "Amazon.com: Get Big Fast," a book covering the history and development of the Web giant.
"What's going to differentiate the book I get from you versus the book I get from your competitor?"
Following are four ideas for turning the Internet into your own personal cash cow, and suggestions for staying ahead of the competition.
Web logs -- now almost universally know as "blogs" -- were once the sardonic voice of dissent on the Web. Now, everyone seems to have a space on the Internet where they offer opinions or other reflections.
If your blog captures the imagination of the public, you could earn money while you entertain.
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Eden Kennedy of Santa Barbara, Calif., started Fussy.org when her son was 3 months old. She's been blogging about parenting, marriage and the hilarity of daily life for eight years now.
Kennedy says she built a readership by reading, commenting on and showing interest in the blogs of others.
Eventually, Kennedy had enough of a following to sell advertising space on her blog.
She works with several different advertising networks, each of which compensates her with anywhere from $1 per month to several hundred dollars per month.
One day, Kennedy had another flash of entrepreneurial insight: She decided to sell T-shirts to her readers.
She had shirts printed up with the phrase "Writing well is the best revenge" and watched the orders roll in.
"Just that phrase, it hits people pretty well," Kennedy says. "Actually, a lot of academics buy the T-shirt."
Kennedy now earns roughly $200 a month selling T-shirts. That income is in addition to the advertising dollars she rakes in.
Kennedy says her online pursuits have been more fruitful and less time-consuming than her former "real world" job working in a bookstore.
"Usually a post, no matter how long it is, takes me about an hour to write, and lately I haven't been updating more than twice a week," says Kennedy, who adds that designing her blog and dealing with advertisers takes an additional five hours per week.
How much is Kennedy earning from her blogging?
"It still adds up to more than I made selling books for 40 hours a week," she says.
Not every blogger is guaranteed to make good money. However, bloggers who truly love what they do are the ones who flourish, Kennedy says.
"I think the people who really succeed and last in this just really enjoy writing and taking pictures," she says.
2. Selling Books, Music and Other Products
Amazon.com and eBay revolutionized e-commerce in the 1990s. Since then, countless individuals have made money selling books, movies, clothes and every other commodity under the sun.
E-commerce is becoming easier than ever, and the complications of arranging payment over the Internet are disappearing fast, Spector says.
"A lot of the uncertainty is taken out of the equation thanks to the technology," he says. "You're going to get paid before you send out the product."
Spector, author of the book on Amazon.com, says sites like Amazon can help small-volume sellers reach a wider audience.
"(Amazon) makes it easier and more beneficial for small book collectors who obviously have either rare or out-of-print books to do business ... it's worth it for them to give Amazon a little piece of that business in order to be in a very high-profile space," he says.
Mick McClain has been selling music on the Internet for 10 years. He sells everything from rare and out-of-print compact discs to new releases and used albums.
McClain uses eBay and Amazon.com to market his products. He also operates a Web site where potential customers can peruse his collection.
The San Diego resident says his startup costs were minimal. He had to spend to buy a "little bit better computer" and to build up his inventory, 90 percent of which comes from brick-and-mortar stores.
For newcomers to e-commerce, McClain recommends sticking to something you know.
"Your mind has to be a database," he says. "That's why I have never gotten into anything other than music because I would get eaten alive by the people who were the authorities on (other products)."
Spector offers two tips to aspiring e-merchants.
"First of all, have a unique product," he says. "There needs to be something separating you from your competitors."
Spector's second tip is to make sure you can deliver on your product promises.
"Live up to what you promise," he says. "If you promise a book,...in a particular condition, at a particular price, and guarantee it to arrive on a particular day, then do that."
3. Marketing Your Hobbies
Crafters, photographers and artists also are tapping into the Web's potential as a marketplace for their goods.
Notley Hawkins, a fine art photographer from Columbia, Mo., started selling online by uploading his photographs onto Flickr, a popular digital photograph storage Web site.
Flickr subsequently partnered with Imagekind, a Web site that specializes in selling fine art prints. Since then, Hawkins has sold about 50 of his prints through Imagekind.
Hawkins has found that having a Web site and selling photos online helped to enhance his reputation offline. He says his online presence helped him gain credibility with area travel magazines, for which he does freelance work.
"It's helped my career in many ways," Hawkins says of Imagekind. "It's helped me make some money, which is very important."
Hawkins urges budding photographers to start gradually by posting their photos to a site like Flickr.
"Try to establish a reputation online by publishing online," he says.
In the crafting world, Web sites such as Etsy offer merchants of handmade goods a way to expand their customer base while conveniently selling their products. Sellers who use Etsy can use the service to take payments via PayPal or money orders.
Adam Brown, spokesman for Etsy, says handmade jewelry and craft-making supplies are two of the site's most popular categories.
To make money online, Brown says sellers must pay particular attention to posting good photos of their products and writing eye-catching descriptions. These skills are important, since the Web page has to substitute for a tangible product.
Brown also recommends the age-old suggestion of good customer service.
"When people contact you, you should always respond quickly," he says.
He says other smart marketing moves -- such as throwing in freebie extras when a customer orders something -- can build customer loyalty.
"Adding a personal touch really helps," he says.
4. Contributing to a Web Site
All over the Web, passionate fans are providing their expertise in music, movies and sports to niche Web sites. Many are earning sizable amounts of cash for doing things they love.
Brian Swaw of Chicago hires seven staff writers for his content fantasy football Web site, GameTimeDecisions.net.
Swaw's writers get paid roughly $100 per month, and in return, each writes one to two articles about football players and fantasy draft picks every week.
Want to pen about your passion for a Web site? Swaw recommends volunteering to start.
"That's how I did," he says. "There's a ton of sports Web sites out there that are looking for volunteers and it's a good way to get your name out there."
On the Internet, there are sites indulging just about every hobby, so opportunities abound.
EHow is an informational Web site where you can get paid writing "how-to" instructions on just about anything.
Music geeks should try the All Music Guide, a popular music review site that pays its contributors. Music Emissions is an alternative music Web site that accepts reviews from all members and will promote you to their editorial team if they like your stuff.
Finally, most major cities have a slew of entertainment Web sites, some of which pay reviewers. CenterstageChicago.com, for instance, proffers clear and simple instructions on how to contribute to the site and get paid.
Check your city's entertainment Web sites, and don't be discouraged if there aren't instructions for reviewers -- try e-mailing the editor.
All That Glitters...
Sellers, writers and others who are clever and persistent often make a profit through their online activities. However, not everybody makes money, and there are many potential obstacles to success.
Some ventures, such as craft sales and blogs, can take a long time to get started. You may find yourself investing a lot of time and effort -- and even some money -- before you begin to see a return.
Brown says it's all too easy for craft sellers to take dismal sales personally and start doubting the quality of their artistry.
"People tend to get discouraged very easily," he says.
Another downside of e-commerce is that Web sites often charge fees to sellers.
"When I first started selling on eBay, the fees were very low," McClain says. "As with anything else, when a corporation smells blood in the water, they put out more chum and the fees go up dramatically."
McClain says he also has noticed increased postage prices for mailing packages to customers.
In addition to rising rates, e-venders must also contend with the stiff competition that manifests itself in a massive online market.
"The inherent problem is (that) everybody that you're competing with is selling at the same place," says McClain. "When you're selling on the Internet, you're competing with every single person that has the same product line and interest in the world."
In addition, some people find it difficult to find an outlet for their interests that will also generate revenues.
Freelance music writer Philip Sherburne said he has a hard time getting paid to write about the music he likes.
"I'd say the biggest struggle is simply finding outlets that share my musical interests, since I've always specialized in electronic and experimental music," says Sherburne, an American expatriate now living in Spain.
Pop and indie rock are music genres with a broader online following than electronic and experimental music. However, those types of music don't interest Sherburne as much.
"I'm rapidly losing any kind of grounding in the worlds of pop or indie rock," Sherburne says.
Despite such challenges, determined sellers continue to find success. If you're interested in making money on the Internet, a little perseverance and luck will go a long way.
"If you go on our blog there's a 'quit your day job' series; we actually have people who have really awesome stuff and they...quit their day job," Brown says. "Now, they support themselves by what they make."
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