How to Make Your First Dollar Online With Zero Money

Gina Edwards Gina Edwards December 8, 2016

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Walk into any local small business, and you will almost always find one thing in common. Any idea what it is?

Maybe it’s symbolic, maybe it’s fake, maybe it’s just for show, but there it will be: a framed dollar bill hanging on the wall, marking the first money made from a business.

Despite the changing times and priorities of businesses today, one idea remains: making the first dollar is one of the earliest, and perhaps biggest, hurdles to overcome.

Why? Because until you make money, you don’t have a business –– plain and simple.

Speaking of George Washingtons (or whomever graces the equivalent of a one dollar bill in your country), starting a business can seem like something that only people with money do. You know, the trust fund babies and the lucky beneficiaries of large inheritances.

This is a fallacy. Sure, people who luxuriate in king-sized beds filled with fat stacks of cash –– lookin’ at you, 50 Cent –– might have a leg up on those of us who have more Monopoly dollars to our name than real ones. The truth is you can start a business without any money. You just need creativity, drive, and a solid internet connection.

With enough effort, you will soon be able to frame your first dollar, bitcoin, Venmo transfer, direct deposit, or PayPal credit for all the world to see.

Skill to Money Cycle

Let’s start with a plan. Not a business plan, per se –– more like a game plan.

Making money ultimately boils down to one thing: offering a product or service that other people will pay for. It’s that simple.

If you’re just starting out in the online business world, you may find it much easier to build a business around a service rather than a product. It is much more straightforward to start, has fewer regulations, and is more sustainable overall. Even if your ultimate goal is to build a product-based business, you should start with a service and build towards that goal.

With this in mind, let’s look at something we’ll call the skill to money cycle:

money

To give you a concrete example of how this cycle looks in real life, let’s take web design as your skill. Everyone these days needs a website, and the market has responded by giving people without coding skills many platforms for creating a site without a lick of in-depth tech knowledge.

Learn the skill

Despite the apparent ease in site creation these days, not everyone wants to do it. Take a few hours on a Sunday to dive into WordPress, the platform responsible for 25% of the internet (seriously). Play around, read some tutorials, and try on dozens of different themes. Get the essential knowledge under your belt.

Market the skill

Then, start spreading the word amongst friends, colleagues, social groups, social media communities, and the like that you do website setup for a reasonable cost. It doesn’t have to be fancy or even salesy, but be persistent until you lock in your first client. Yes, even Grandma with her checkbook counts.

Make money from the skill

Did you hear that? It’s the sound of a dollar bill (or several, hopefully) coming at you. Once you receive that first payment, you can rejoice. You’re officially in business!

But don’t rest on your laurels for too long. Once you’ve treated yourself to a celebratory milkshake, beer, or otherwise calorie-loaded reward, it’s time for the next step.

Use money to grow the skill

Look into how you can use those funds to refine your abilities. After all, if you really want your business to be formed around your skills, it’s important to have them. Relying on haphazard trial and error plus YouTube rabbit holes are not always the best (or at least not the quickest) way to get good at something.

Online courses, live training, one-on-one coaching, paid memberships, and books are all potential options for developing your skills further. You might consider investing in an option that gives you some kind of certificate or label that you can use to assure potential clients that you do, in fact, know what you’re talking about.

From there, the cycle repeats: learn → market → make money → use money to grow. Perhaps the only difference is that, eventually, the last step can be transformed from growing your personal skills to growing different elements of your business.

Now that you understand the process for forming and growing a service-based business that can make you money online, you might think we’re done here.

Before you run off and dive into the first idea you have, let’s back up a second and be strategic so that you can maximize your potential for success in the online business world.

To do that, we gotta talk about the most important person to get this equation going: you.

What Are My Skills?

It’s time for an audit –– a self-audit.

Since the dawn of kindergarten, adults have been telling us what we’re apparently good at. From simplified report cards with checkmarks next to “works well with others” to post-graduate diplomas with fancy fields of study emblazoned on the front, we spend our lives mastering skills that can serve us in the real world.

Chances are, you’ve got some already. These skills can be leveraged into your online business. Identify first, and then figure out how to make them make you money.

Think for a few minutes about what you’re good at.

If you, humble reader, are having trouble coming up with such ideas, consider the following questions:

  • What do you do in your free time when you’re not working?
  • What do people come to you for advice about?
  • What have you taught someone to do?
  • How have you helped someone do something in the last six months?
  • Which parts of your job are so breezy that you could do them with your eyes closed?
  • What would your closest friends and family members say about your skills? (Hint: you can always ask!)
  • What topics have you read or Googled so much that you feel qualified to write the Wikipedia page about them?

After going through this list, you should have a list of at least 20 things that you know how to do pretty damn well. If you’re coming up short, add on some topics or skills that you don’t yet have or feel shaky on, but would like to learn more about (more on that later).

Then, go through and make some cuts. Chiefly, remove anything that you hate or could see yourself becoming really annoyed with doing regularly.

For example, let’s say you’re a proofreading wizard, but the thought of going through resumes for punctuation errors makes you nauseated, or reading essays for typos gives you high school flashback nightmares. Probably not a good idea to base your money making machine around such a skill.

From there, consider removing anything that you can’t work on remotely. Since we are gearing up in the realm of online business, you should focus your energies on ideas that are mobile and internet friendly. Remember that many skills that could seem IRL-centric could be easily turned into an online course of some kind.

Continue narrowing down using any other factors that are total deal breakers for you. Be careful here –– the idea is to be realistic with yourself about what you’ll actually carry out, while accepting the fact that whatever skill or service you will offer may not be your dream or ideal way to pass the time.

In case you’re still hurting for ideas, here are some we’ve thought of to help get you going:

  • Content and Copywriting
  • Resume Writing
  • Online Tutoring or Teaching
  • Social Media Management
  • Consulting (Financial, Business, etc.)
  • Referrals
  • Design
  • Editing
  • Translation
  • SEO
  • Web Design
  • Advertising
  • Promotion
  • Sales Lead Generation
  • Internet Research

Once you’ve got your current and potential skills narrowed down to around six to eight feasible options, it’s time to go to market.


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Who’s Buying What I’m Selling?

The internet is a place brimming with opportunities to share your skills for money –– if you know where to look. Depending on the kind of services that you will be offering and how you will do it, there are several different “niche neighborhoods” that can serve you well as a budding internet entrepreneur.

This list is anything but exhaustive, but is a great place to start.

Writers – Create content for sites that need it.

  • Content Mills
    • Textbroker.com
    • iWriter.com
    • Hirewriters.com

Teachers and Tutors – Create and sell online courses and materials.

  • Education sites
    • SkillShare.com
    • Udemy.com
    • TeachersPayTeachers.com

Freelancers – Take on different projects from your pick of advertised options.

  • Freelance platforms
    • Upwork.com
    • Fiverr.com
    • Freelancer.com
    • Guru.com

Others – Creative ways to find opportunities.

  • Search online marketing groups on Facebook such as Local Client Takeover to see what their members are saying, and how you could solve possible pains people have.
  • Look at discussions happening on Quora, and see if your service could benefit the people involved.
  • Keep your pulse on hashtags or discussions on various social media and blogs to see where and how your input could be valuable.
  • Start off doing some pro bono work with Taproot or Catchafire to gain contacts and positive reviews that you can use to land paid gigs.

Check these opportunities against the list you made in the last section, and narrow down to one or two you will focus on getting clients for.

At the outset, it will take some legwork and perseverance to land high-quality clients, as many others have hopped on the gig economy bandwagon and competition can be fierce. As you spend time refining your skills, consider how you will set yourself apart from the crowd.

Are you particularly fast in your work? Do you cater to a particular demographic? Do you boast impressive customer service? Determine your X factor and use it to land more opportunities.

Business could be slow to start, but once you gain a client or two and have momentum, you should find that you have a steady income stream to support your skills-based business.

From there, you might find yourself at a crossroads. You can either continue to build out and grow your service, or use the revenue from your pursuits to finance the creation or purchase of a niche site or other online business.


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Creating or Buying Your Online Kingdom

The choice here is truly yours. After building skills, marketing them, and gaining clients, you should have a taste of what running an online business is like.

You can continue your journey by building a niche site that relates to your skills, a personal interest, or a passion of yours. If you’re not into starting from scratch, you might consider using your earnings to purchase an already profitable business online.

Not sure what to do? The decision really boils down to a few factors: time, money, and interest.

Time

Starting and growing a niche site requires a deep investment of time at the outset, from creating a web presence to creating and marketing content to managing social media and other day-to-day factors of the site.

Buying an existing site or business that’s already pulling in profits can greatly reduce the amount of time you need to invest, but it will still require management.

Money

While niche sites require more time, they cost way less money to get going. Existing sites will cost you a lot more up front, but might have greater possibility for market success based on past indicators.

Depending on your current financial situation, you may have to opt for building a niche site right now, but the potential of purchasing a site down the road can be a great goal to aim for.

Interest

Your online business should be something that not only makes you money but also brings you happiness as well. If you are not in the least interested in what you’re working on, you may lose steam and end up abandoning your site early on. Return to the lists you made before and remind yourself of what you really like, so that you can make sure to go the distance with your site.

That First Dollar’s Within Reach

So, when it comes to making money online, the process is simple, but the possibilities are many and complex. As you prepare to create your own opportunities online, keep a few things in mind:

  • Join the Skill to Money Cycle: Learn → Market → Earn → Grow → Repeat.
  • Take stock of your skills and interests as a starting point for your business.
  • Find communities where your skills are needed such as content mills, freelance sites, and education platforms, or create new opportunities for yourself based on public forum discussions.
  • Utilize your revenue to build out your own niche site or purchase an existing profitable site.

By following these steps, you can manage to take your skills and, with no startup cash, turn them into a business that delivers profit to your bank account.

You already have everything you need to create these opportunities for yourself –– the trick is to get started, and put in the work that turns wantrepreneurs into entrepreneurs.

Maybe those first earnings won’t go in a frame in a storefront, but they will be the important first steps in transforming your daydreams into real, tangible outcomes that you can share with the world.

Photo credit: MavoImages

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