Earning a Living Doing What You Love Thumbnail

If you follow Consumerism Commentary, and I hope you do, you might have seen that I recently left the company I’ve worked for during the day for the past eight years. Since 2003 but particularly in the past few years, Consumerism Commentary has been a side project — even though I often contributed more than forty hours a week to its development. For a side project, it’s done quite well for me. The revenue from Consumerism Commentary surpassed my day-job salary in 2007. The question I am asked most often about my revenue is, “Why didn’t you quit your day job a long time ago?”

I ended my Yakezie member post with the issues I needed to consider before leaving the corporation that offered me a steady salary and benefits: “… the two remaining questions are whether quitting the day job will allow me to further enhance my online projects while keeping my sanity and whether I would be able to quickly recover if the income were to disappear overnight.”

Unlike many of the thousands of personal finance blogs started in the past few years, Consumerism Commentary was not designed to earn any money. In 2003, it was very rare for a blog to generate revenue, and when I had begun writing on the web in early 1995, it was unheard of. I’ve been building online communities since 1990, and it never crossed my mind that there would be a market for this. Consumerism Commentary was designed to keep myself accountable publicly for my financial decisions, to learn more about personal finance, and to share interesting articles with a small number of readers. I didn’t even add advertising for another year — as an experiment.

When Consumerism Commentary started earning more than $1,000 a month, I realized that there was potential for earning a living solely through blogging. $1,000 might have been enough for some people to leave their day jobs, but I decided that if I could earn three times my salary — a low back-office salary from a cheap company — I would quit and consider myself solely self-employed while spending all of my working time developing Consumerism Commentary further. It didn’t take too long to get there, but there were some barriers along the way.

1. Lack of diversity. First of all, I wasn’t comfortable with the lack of diversity of income sources. This seems sort of silly, considering the alternative was my salary and benefits, coming from one company. But with a public company that has been around for over a hundred years, I wasn’t concerned. Earning money from primarily blogging was an untested medium, and most of my income was coming directly from Google through AdSense. I diversified, working with advertisers directly, to ensure AdSense wouldn’t be my only source of income. I began accepting affiliate advertising, text link ads, and traditional banner advertising.

2. Google’s omnipresence and control. Even with this diversity, there is no escaping Google. Many people talk about this privately, and if people write about it publicly, I haven’t seen it. Here is the logic that shows how Google controls your blog income, even revenue from independent sources:

  1. Google is the biggest search engine.
  2. Visitors who find your site through Google’s search results drive revenue-generating traffic.
  3. Without being listed — and listed well — in Google’s search results, revenue could easily dry up.

A few years ago, I had a scare. For no apparent reason, I stopped receiving traffic from Google. It didn’t take long for me to determine that Consumerism Commentary was no longer appearing on Google’s search results pages. This happened after Consumerism Commentary was earning more than my day job, and my revenue sank for a few weeks. I thought it was all over, and I had no idea why. Even without traffic from Google, I was still able to operate the site. Regular readers still visited without any knowledge that the website was receiving less traffic, and I continued publishing articles and participating in discussions as usual. The revenue-generating one-time visitors were no longer finding Consumerism Commentary, and I wanted to understand what happened.

The bad news didn’t stop there. Consumerism Commentary’s PageRank — an important measure of a site’s standing at the time — dropped to zero. This was the same experience that some other bloggers had reported around that time as a result of running various types of ads.  In actuality, advertising had nothing to do with why my site lost its ranking.  Consumerism Commentary had been hacked and some malicious JavaScript code was appearing on most of the pages on the domain.

I installed a fresh copy of WordPress with a new host, MediaTemple, and migrated all of my information from the old location on DreamHost. With a clean copy of the entire domain, I filed a re-inclusion request with Google, noting I removed the malicious code. Google was quick to act; Consumerism Commentary was back on the search results pages with a PageRank of 5 or 6.

This scare solidified the idea that I needed to diversify income sources before realistically earning a living from blogging. Many have suggested offering “information products” or “e-products” or “e-books” to supplement advertising income, and this may be something for someone to consider. I have yet to find any “information product” with more than dubious value, and these are usually sold with annoying marketing techniques such as unblockable pop-up windows, so I’m still determining how to create meaningful projects, earn money, and stay true to my values when it comes to marketing. While I’m reserving the right to offer something in the future, I’ll only do so if it has value and only if I can be successful doing it my way.

3. Fear. The experience with Google made me cautious. I had been planning to leave my day job to blog full-time from the moment Consumerism Commentary revenue surpassed my income, but this experience set me back at least a year. I needed to be completely confident that my revenue wouldn’t go up in smoke one day before I left my job. Today, I feel strongly that the possibility of this happening is low, and between the cash I’ve built up for emergency situations such as a loss of income and my demonstrated skills of various types, I could be back on my feet in a short time if disaster strikes.

It was the right time to leave. I traded my salary and benefits in for eight to nine hours a day during which I could write more, participate in communities, take care of administrative tasks, and handle marketing. Although I also planned to squeeze in more time for other things that make my life worthwhile, I’ll have to wait and see how my time develops over the next few months. Some of the barriers still exist, but I’ve found ways to convince myself that I’ll be better off without the need to fall back on a “stable” paycheck.

I still find it somewhat crazy that making a living by writing on Consumerism Commentary is possible, and that may be a psychological barrier, as well. As you can see, it can be done if you provide something of value to the world.