On the Internet, even more than in the offline world, if something sounds too good to be true, it most definitely is. Yet, somehow, every day, an ever increasing amount of people make their full income online. This post is a look into that world.

Just like you, I get those e-mails that claim you can make millions of dollars online without any risk, work or expertise. That is simply not true. You can throw the idea of the 4 hour work week out the window. People do indeed make a lot of money online but unlike the spammy e-mails, their methods are not easy.

The Secret To Making Money Online (Isn’t So Secret)

Here is the blunt truth. The vast majority of people who have successfully made their millions online have done two things incredibly well:

  1. They have taken a known income generating method (see list below) and made it better.
  2. They have worked incredibly hard to execute on that improvement.

If you want to make money online, you have to do the same.

Methods for Making Money Online

This list is intended to be a thought seed for you. What new angle can you take on the well known methods below? Your answer (and your hard work) will be the difference between diddly-squat and checks.

1. Build A Platform

This is the best way to make a lot of money online. One of the hardest parts of selling a product or service is earning people’s attention (information distribution, aka marketing). If you can create a platform that enables people to promote themselves (which they will gladly do if it helps them) while simultaneously promoting your platform, you get the luxury of a mostly automatic and ever increasing marketing machine. If you can do this, you have solved one of the harder problems and you can divert your attention and resources to solving the remaining hard problems (e.g. scaling and distribution)

The prime online examples of this are Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon Web Services, WordPress, Tumbler and LinkedIn. Those are the crazy success stories. More attainable examples include Toms Shoes, small and medium sized web development companies (ex. Launch Digital Marketing), Patreon and CrossFit.

2. Tell Stories

This may be the worst way to make money online :-) This method requires a whole lot of work and has a very small success ratio. That said, humanity has an endless demand for good stories told well. The prime examples of online companies succeeding at this are Netflix, major media outlets, Amazon’s Kindle platform and to a lesser degree, prolific blogs (TMZ, Business Insider, Mashable etc.)

The easiest storytelling mediums to get started with are:

  • Blogging
  • Videos (Youtube or game live streaming via a service like Twitch)
  • Books (Most notably via the Kindle platform)
  • Comics

While all of these are easy to get started with, they are incredibly oversaturated channels. The biggest problem people encounter when trying to make money off of these channels is gaining people’s attention. It is possible to make a lot of money by telling stories via these mediums (See The Oatmeal, Perez Hilton, Michelle Phan, Andy Weir) but it is incredibly difficult to stand out and earn a large audience. Like all of the items on this list, if you choose to go this way, you will need to figure out how to take the old and do it in a new attention earning way.

3. Create Art

Paradoxically, this is the most boring item on the list. While art can be expressive and creative, the type of art that makes the most money online tends to be boring and normally not considered art. The major examples of this are:

  • Stock/Indie Music (Think less John Williams and more Pomplamoose)
  • Stock Sound Effects (You can’t expect YouTubers to make their own fart noises!)
  • Stock Photography (Think more celebrity paparazzi photos and less generic models in generic situations)

If you are not interested in providing Stock works, you can try to create something physical and sell it online. Unfortunately, even if you use one of the most popular platforms (there is that word again) like Etsy, you are still going to run into the problem of having to stand out from the competition and earn potential buyers’ attention. That said, as Kickstarter has shown, boutique physical items can sell well online, the key to success is solving lots of other people’s problems with a solution that only you can offer. (See Glowforge for exciting movement in this space.)

4. Provide a Service That Computers Can Not Do Better Than You

This is my favorite method on the list as it gets more difficult to acheive as every day passes but as such it also gets more valuable. (In case you haven’t noticed, computers are learning how to do practically everything, and they are doing so very quickly!) Below are my favorite examples of marketable skills that computers can’t yet do better than humans:

  • Many Forms of Curation
  • User Experience Testing
  • Very Specific Non-computer Friendly Tasks

You could sign up for a service like Mechanical Turk and make some extra cash that way but that is difficult to scale and turn into a full income generator. Instead, set your goals higher by working to become a content curation editor (like the team at Techmeme), a design curator (like those at Zulily) or a user experience consultant (you can start here)

5. Teach

If all else fails, teach what you know!

As more people around the globe gain Internet access, the already gigantic market of people seeking to learn grows bigger. If you have a valuable and sought after skill to teach, the Internet might be your perfect medium for doing so.

If you are really smart, you will take what you know and build a (wait for it…) platform in order to teach your knowledge. Big players like Kahn Academy and Simplilearn are doing this for many topic areas but there have also been a lot of successes with companies focusing on only teaching a single topic (Chesscademy, Meludia).

The key to succeeding with this method is finding both a valuable skill to teach (Sure, Settlers of Catan is fun but are people really going to pay to learn how to play it?) and creating a method to scalably and effectively teach it.

Again, these are intended to be seeds to get your mind thinking about how you can do the old in a new and better way. Let me know in the comments if these “thought seed” posts are helpful and if you think I should write more of them.