September 10, 2013

Learning = Earning

This essay is inspired by this week’s Startup Edition topic, “How did you make your first dollar online?

I called it Operation Laugh. I liked the name but more importantly, the .com was available.

Operation Laugh was a website I created in High School; a collection of funny jokes and comics I found on the web. The idea was inspired by a friend and fellow freshman. He was earning several thousand dollars in ad revenue from his own joke website. Impressive results for a 14-year-old’s side project. So like any great artist or entrepreneur, I stole the idea (with permission), thirsty to replicate his success.

I purchased a book on HTML and CSS and downloaded a cracked version of Photoshop. Every day after school, I buried my nose in my books, fiddling with code and Photoshop until I learned just enough to start building. I didn’t use a content management system (CMS) or templates to streamline the process and ensure consistency across the site. I didn’t know how to. Instead, I worked with what I did know and built the site by hand, copying and pasting header and footer HTML into each individual page. Ugly, I know.

After weeks and countless afternoons of missed after school TV shows, I created over 100 pages of hilarity. Proudly, I thought to myself, “Now it’s time to monetize!”

I scoured the net, looking for an ad network to run banners. I was overwhelmed. There were so many to choose from. So I called my buddy. He had done this before so why not simply ask?

He recommended a few banner ad networks but more importantly, he informed me of a different monetization model I had not considered: selling email addresses. I may have been a noob to online advertising but even I knew banner ads would return little revenue without a large number of visitors. Knowing this was unlikely - at least early on - I turned to collecting email addresses from the site and selling them for $.25/each (with disclosure). And it worked!

It took several months but I made my first dollar online, generating $70 in revenue. Although I spent $60 in hosting and domain registration fees, I WAS IN THE BLACK, pleased with my $10 profit.

But the $10 wasn’t important. Money was a byproduct of the true value gained from Operation Laugh. The learning and entrepreneurial experience was my reward. Here’s a quote from Mark Suster that sticks with me:

There’s a time to earn and there’s a time to learn.

In reality, earning and learning are one in the same. By learning, you earn lifelong skills and experience. My online early entrepreneurial experience taught me how to build a site, that sometimes it’s best to simply ask for help, and importance of a well-thought business model. As founders, you owe it to yourself, family, team, and investors to return a profit but learning is most important. Learning provides a lasting return through your current or future ventures. Your startup will likely fail but if you’re learning, it’s not all for not.

Despite the comically small return, Operation Laugh was a success, a fantastic learning opportunity, and my introduction to online entrepreneurism.

How did you make your first dollar online? Read more from other founders at Startup Edition.

P.S. Say hello on Twitter (@rrhoover) or subscribe to my email list for more essays like this and other content not published on my blog.

Photo credit: kenteegardin

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