Like a lot of people: I want to create an online side business.
There are lots of articles & resources about how to create one. But I’ve got two things rattling around my brain:
- I don’t know much about running solo businesses.
- I don’t want to grow and scale an obnoxiously large company.
Solving #1 is pretty easy: get experience. Observe and learn from others who do have experience. Give things a go, fail, learn, repeat.
But #2 is trickier. I thought such a thing didn’t exist until I saw the term humble business nestled away in a Twitter bio.
What is a humble business?
As described (coined by?) Ian Nuttall, humble businesses are:
Simply built, simply run and generate dependable revenue and profit.
Sound’s like the exact thing I was looking for (+ the antidote to HUSTLE culture).
So with that in mind, I began thinking about one of my goals I keep putting off:
Create a simple, small and sustainable business to improve my current skills, learn new skills and generate some predictable income.
While I don’t buy into New Years being a fresh start and a dramatic shift from the previous year, there’s no denying that it make’s for a good starting point. A clean slate.
A few ideas I’ve been tossing around is creating and selling a digital product to supplement my (tiny) SEO business.
So I did what all aspiring wantrepreneurs entrepreneurs do:
I aimlessly browsed Twitter.
For all it’s nonsense, Twitter sometimes has some cool stuff on there and even some pearls of wisdom.
Instead of focusing on some hazy definition of a market, create products that meet at the intersection of your skills and experience, what people want, and what they are willing to pay for.
— Ian Nuttall (@iannuttall) December 28, 2019
Which got me thinking: this is a the perfect framework for deciding what humble business to work on.
Like a year 9 maths test, let me show my working:
Starting an online business.
I’m going to show my thought process here because writing things down helps to declutter my brain, organise my thoughts and I had a few too many coffees this morning and got carried away.
- I want to create something scalable that doesn’t involve hiring loads of people.
- Leverage (and improve upon) my existing skillset.
- Keep stress levels low + be in control of my own time.
I’m dumbing this down, but income that isn’t tied to manpower is the holy grail IMHO.
And one of the best ways to divorce yourself from manpower is to sell a product. Build a thing once. Then continue to sell that thing many times over.
Creating a digital product to sell seems like the closest you can get to passive income.
Back to the tweet.
Ian’s one of those business owners who actually does stuff. He’s not building a brand, he’s building a business. I always try to find and learn from those people who are doing stuff (vs those that are trying to sell stuff).
Anyway, enough internet-arse-kissing, let’s breakdown Ian’s tweet into a framework:
You need to create products that meet at the intersection of:
- your skills and experience
- what people want
- what they are willing to pay for.
Applying the framework
I think this is a useful framework to think about when trying to settle on an idea for a humble real-life business.
But like frameworks, it is more useful if you actually apply it.
So, because I’m
sad not-sad, I’ve created a spreadsheet template to help walk through it.
Using the spreadsheet
Ok, so first up: this is pretty basic and dumbed down. I wanted this to be a tool that would help prevent procrastination and analysis paralysis, not actively encourage it.
There’s space for 10 ideas to work through at a time. Sure you can add more. But spending too long thinking of business ideas at this point vs actually testing & validating ideas is not a good use of time. I should know, I’m a master-procraster.
For the scoring, you can use your own thinking. Here’s how I approached it:
- Your skills and experience – what do I know/can I do to create something of value (if I need to spend any length of time learning something new, this isn’t the place for it).
- What people want – what can I see people asking for online (that I could realistically create)
- What they are willing to pay for – what are people paying for and can I actually create something of equal (or greater) value.
Here’s a walkthrough of my thought process using Ian’s framework + a spreadsheet:
1) Your skills and experience
Building a small software tool and selling it as a company of one is more than doable. The Indiehackers community is a testament to that.
Software/SaaS tools are great for generating monthly revenue. At least they would be but I don’t know how to code.
I can mess around in cPanel, write some basic SQL queries and make some pretty beasty spreadsheet formulas, but creating usable software? Nope. Can’t do that.
Could I learn to code? Sure, probably, maybe. I could follow this great learn how to code guide by Ryan Kulp and spend the next year learning a new skill. Then hopefully build and sell something.
But that’s going to take time.
Leveraging an existing skill to make money now will generate income quicker.
So what skills?
Easiest place to start is: what is your current job? How are you currently making money? For me, I’ve worked in marketing for the past few years. Specifically SEO. So let’s run with that.
✍️ Update [Your skills & experience] in the sheet:
First you want to list the skills and work experience you have. Ideally these will be things you are actually decent at, and even better, things you’ve earned money doing.
(I’ve added some dud ideas. You’ll see what happens if you try to build a business around something you have no or little experience in later on)
Give yourself a score between 1 – 5.
1 = okay at it. 5 = pretty great.
If you aren’t good at a thing, it’s probably not good to base a business around it until you’ve got better at it.
2) What people want
Ok, so let’s ignore software tools. What are some things I can build myself, using the skills & knowledge I already have?
Also, no point re-inventing the wheel here, what are people already spending money on?
Once you narrow that down you are left with a shortlist.
Types of digital products (that people are willing to pay for):
- membership sites
- exclusive content (à la paid newsletters, communities ect)
So one thing that jumps out of this list is learning and selling knowledge via a course.
Knowing SEO is great. It’s an in demand skill:
So when it comes to turning skills and experience into something people want, online courses seem like the perfect fit.
According to stats:
The Global eLearning Market Will Reach $325 Billion By 2025
The eLearning Industry Has Grown by 900% since 2000
Source: Supply Gem
Awesome. The obvious choice is an SEO course then? Maybe not:
If I created an SEO course based off my experience working with brands like
Zillow, NYT, Dribbble, IHG, and many more, would you buy it?
— JOHN DOHΞRTY 🤓 Denver entrepreneur (@dohertyjf) October 3, 2019
Moral of the story: check what people want before building something.
Head back to the spreadsheet:
✍️ Update [What people want] in the sheet:
Now you need to figure out if the skill you have matches up with what people want.
Do some keyword research to see what things people are searching for. Check places like Reddit, Quora and online communities to get a sense of what kind of things people are asking.
If you are part of the community (or know someone who is) you’ll find it easier to understand the problems you can solve.
Give yourself a score based on how well you can meet that need.
For example, people (business owners) want their accounting simplified. Great, I’ll do that… Only I know very little about bookkeeping.
Whereas people want to find the right keywords to target and this is something I can help with, and have experience with doing.
3) What they are willing to pay for
You don’t need to go re-inventing the wheel here.
Keeping the framework in mind, if you know what you are good at and what people want, all you need to do is check whether people are willing to pay for it.
A few years ago, I spent ages trying to build an automated reporting service. The idea was to have agencies sign up for a monthly fee and let me handle their reporting. I could practically smell the MRR.
Only I didn’t check if people would pay for this (aka I didn’t validate this idea before wasting time). And boy did I waste time.
Turns out most agencies just use things like Google Sheets or Data Studio to handle reporting. And they handle this in-house. And they create a template once and automate it. Not much help having a third party subscription service when you can pay internal staff to do it or a freelancer can knock up a dashboard in an afternoon.
Moral: check that people will part with their money for what you are offering.
Here’s some real examples of digital products (that people are actually buying):
- Traffic Think Tank – private slack community
- Teach Computer Science – membership site
- Collins School of Data – online course
- Conversion Gold – paid newsletter
- Micro Acquisitions – course + community
These are all examples of digital businesses ran by solo owners or a few people.
Back to the spreadsheet:
✍️ Update [What people are willing to pay for] in the sheet:
Now list out the things people are already paying for (that you can provide).
Reminder: don’t re-invent the wheel here. Look for a need not being met or is being underserved (easier said than done).
If you have no idea what people are willing to pay for and you can’t find any evidence, you’ve either found the best underserved niche in the world, or you’ve got the dud.
I tried to score this on things people ACTUALLY want that I can provide.
But that’s not always possible.
Example: people are paying for lots for SEO tools every month. Can I build an SEO tool in the next month? Big fat nope.
So could I create a course teaching SEO? I could but there’s so many of them + I don’t feel qualified to do so. Like at all.
Outcome (Overall score in the spreadsheet)
Once you’ve filled in all the scores, you’ll get an average overall score:
This gives you a top down view of skills you have that match up with what people want and what they are paying for.
From the example above, a done-for-you keyword research service scored highest. So that is something to be researched more.
Despite the fact my omelette cooking skills are high, there’s no real demand for it online and people aren’t prepared to pay for it.
Although this is a silly example, it highlights a trap I’ve fallen into before:
Just because you are good at something, doesn’t mean people will pay you for it.
(It’s not really the same, but I like the quote.)
It felt good to get this out my brain and written down. Go use the spreadsheet and apply the framework. If you end up creating anything with it or you just want to chat, you can find me on twitter here.
But you should really go checkout Ian (and his business partner Ryan).
This rambling article was inspired by their work. Go check them out. They are busy doing stuff, not busy talking about doing stuff.