I Quit My 9–5 Job And Make A Living Off Side Projects — So Can You

While I was at college in 2012, I was seeing just how popular coupon websites had become in the U.S. I decided to start the very first coupon site in Turkey.

It was nothing fancy. I started with a generic WordPress site, and I hired a few freelancers via platforms like Freelancer.com and 99Designs.com to customize the site to better explain the idea of coupons.

Growth was slow as the Turkish coupon culture was very new. But after a few months, I had developed relationships with some key merchants, and traffic was growing. I was making enough money from this side project that I could spend a few months traveling across the U.S. as a digital nomad.

Live by Google, die by Google…

Unsplash // Mitchell Luo

Things were good food a few years, until Google filtered my site out of its search results.

I was issued with a Manual Penalty, which I disputed several times, but “computer says no…” It was only after a number of years that I was able to get this website up and running again thanks to a helpful Googler I encountered in the webmaster support forums.

But by this time, the coupon craze was mainstream rather than niche and dominated by Polish and Indian companies. I had no way to catch up. So while my site was off the blacklist, I had minimal traffic and no affiliate income.

Going 9 to 5

Unsplash // bantersnaps

When I stopped receiving affiliate income, it was time to get a “real job”. Fortunately, I had built up a profile for myself on Twitter, and I was offered the role of SEO at a global digital marketing agency. I took the job, for the experience as much as the income, but I was still thinking about side projects that could help me reclaim my financial independence.

I didn’t have any experience as an SEO, so I started out in this new job by applying what I knew about search engine optimization from my personal projects.

While this kept me afloat, I was also on a steep learning curve, learning about client and team management, and how network agencies work under the hood. I got access to more sophisticated (read expensive) SEO tools than I had for my side project, and I was gaining a new, broader perspective as I worked with people from around the world on global projects.

It’s incredible how much I learned over a very short period of time, and I don’t think you can overstate the value of this kind of experience for anyone wanting to start their own business. But the buzz I was getting from going into the office every day didn’t make me want to continue. I was desperate to apply everything I was learning to my own projects and to be my own boss again.

Creating Another Side Project

Unsplash // Khachik Simonian

Coupon websites are among the most profitable, because you directly facilitate the sale, so you earn a sales commission. For this reason, you can make a significant profit with even modest traffic.

I wanted to take advantage of the same principles again, so I decided to target the web hosting niche and created the site DomainPromo.com.

In contrast to many affiliate programs, web hosting affiliate programs are very generous. For example, while GoDaddy costs their entry-level shared hosting plans at around $12, they pay $105 commission for every shared hosting plan customer that I successfully refer.

Why are they paying commission worth ten times the service sold?

  1. Customer acquisition costs for web hosting is high. It is a crowded marketplace and they are probably already spending thousands of dollars just on Google advertising to target new customers.
  2. The lifetime value of the customer is much higher than the initial $12 fee, as they not only continue to pay for their hosting plan, but also domain name renewals, SSLs, private WHOIS, etc. Once the customer is on board, it is then about creating a long-term relationship.

Many other software-as-a-service programs pay similarly high commissions for those vital “new customers”. That is why they are some of the best partners for affiliate marketers.

My website grew quickly, and I was soon making as much off this side project as I had been before I went 9 to 5. But I wasn’t ready to quit my job just yet.

Further Investment

Unsplash // Damir Spanic

If my past experience taught me one thing, it is that you should never put all of your eggs in one basket. If something goes wrong, you can be left with nothing. I wanted to diversify my revenue streams, so I looked at buying a collection of similar commission-based websites.

First, I bought a website from a Canadian suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). He blogged about his IBS journey, and shared tips and exercises to relieve pain caused by the illness.

He had around 20–25K unique visitors per month, and lots of activity in the comments from people dealing with similar problems. But he didn’t monetize the website because he “hated ads”. I bought the website from him, optimized the content for SEO, and monetized it. After a year, I sold it for six times what I paid.

I also bought a website on the psychology of colors. I have added relevant content and some search engine optimization, and now the site receives 100k unique visitors per month. It is now making money by displaying ads and affiliate links. With this website alone, I match the salary I gained from my previous employer.

I have many other successful examples, which have allowed me to move on from my 9 to 5 job. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not working hard. Some of my “side projects”, such as summary.org, have become like full-time jobs.

Finding Side Projects to Buy

When starting out, the initial challenge is finding websites that are worth buying. There are many forums, platforms, and newsletters where people sell their side projects, because they don’t have time, or their focus has moved to other things.

Here’s the list of platforms that I visit regularly to find valuable properties:

  • flippa.com: I have been visiting Flippa for more than 10 years now. You can find online businesses of all kinds from drop-shipping to Amazon FBAs, iOS to Android apps, and websites with existing ad and affiliate revenue.
  • sideprojectors.com: This is another marketplace where you can find online businesses. But unlike Flippa, SideProjectors is not well moderated, so there is a lot of junk obscuring the gems.
  • indiemaker.co: This is one of my favorite marketplaces as it specializes in neglected side projects that need a bit of TLC, from Shopify and WordPress plugins to Chrome extensions, websites, and apps.
  • transferslot.com: While this marketplace is not frequently updated, the properties that it lists are very high quality.
  • ExchangeMarketplace.com: Operated by Shopify, this marketplace lists e-commerce websites with verified traffic and revenue details.

It’s not easy to find a nice side project on these websites, as there are some bad actors who manipulate the numbers or apply shady SEO techniques to get good positions on Google search results. But these smokescreens don’t last long.

For this reason, you need to thoroughly analyze a property before investing. Your analysis should include:

  • History of the domain name: You should check how the domain name has been used before. It might have been used for spam purposes or it might have been a content website in a niche that is totally irrelevant from its current content. This can make it significantly more difficult for you to build up new traffic.
  • Backlink analysis: The organic traffic of the website might be due to the links the owner bought from PBNs or general link networks. This means that the website is likely to get a penalty from Google, which the owner is aware of, and they want to get rid of it before Google de-indexes it.
  • Content analysis: It’s important to check what pages get the most traffic and how these pages get their traffic. If it’s just 2 pages out of 100 pages that get traffic from Google, you might want to reconsider buying it. Or if there is a high proportion of referral and direct traffic, you should look hard to see where this is coming from and ensure there is no manipulation at work.
  • Monetization: Another thing to look for is how the website is monetized. Is it Google AdSense or other ad and affiliate networks that will require account transition? If it’s not monetized through display ads, it might be reasonable to ask whether the website has a ban from Google. And in order to verify revenue sources, a call with screen share might be required.

All these analyzes cost time and money. You need to use third-party SEO tools such as Seobserver, Ahrefs and Semrush to validate the traffic metrics, and if you already have a 9–5 job, it can be hard to find the time to invest in this research.

I created a newsletter to share my findings on marketplaces

For me, flipping websites is now a full-time job, not dissimilar from investing in stock or real-estate. But as well as being a lot of hard work, these websites can be passive income earners that slowly accumulate investment for your retirement.

I regularly check various newsletters, marketplaces, and forums to find the best side project, but I don’t buy them all. Some websites are too expensive for me, while others don’t logically fit within my portfolio, so would disrupt my work processes.

But I have created a newsletter where I both share noteworthy side projects with my subscribers, as well as my expertise in finding, enriching, and eventually selling on these projects for a profit.

If you’re interested, here’s the link to my newsletter: sideproject.link

Adtech consultant 🍪 • SEO worked for Forbes 500 companies 👨🏻‍💻 • Awarded affiliate marketer 💰 • Indie hacker🕵🏻‍♂️ • Generalist 🤓