Saturday, April 14, 2012

How I Turned Hobby Into A Thriving Crowdsourcing Business

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I have turned my hobby (playing with words) into a thriving crowdsourcing business ( Ok, the income may be fluctuating rather wildly (last month I had a day when I received $1000 worth of new orders, but I also had a day when only one order was placed), but this is mostly my own fault. Out of 5 years exists, I’ve really marketed it heavily only probably around 9 months and because it was not my primary income source, so for a few years PickyDomains kind of lived its own life and marketed itself.

I am not writing this post to ‘inspire’ anyone. I think there is a log of ‘inspiroin’ going around. Rather I am going to tell you EXACTLY what I did and hopefully some of these tricks will help you strike on your own or get to the income level where you don’t have to work 9-5 job (unless that’s what you love doing).

So let’s start at the beginning. I was born in Russia and in 1995 moved to US. I finished highschool, then went to a community college, before finally graduating with BS in Microbiology. I worked in a lab for a while but then I decided to move back to Russia. Except there was no job for American-trained microbiologists there. I hooked up with my school buddies there who turned programmers. I told them about shareware and we started a few shareware related businesses, that were quite profitable for a while, but are now mostly dead – namely DePrice.Com (shareware discounter) and (it think the idea is brilliant and most likely I’ll relaunch it with iPad and Android in mind when I get a chance).

One of the things Russian shareware community really needed was names and domains for their software that sounded ‘American’. Several translation and localization services offered a deal where you paid about $100 and was offered 10 names or domains to choose from. But oftentimes you’d spend $100 and get nothing decent. So I came up with the idea of risk-free naming service. A client would tell me what he wanted and I’d send him or her a list of suggestions. If they decided to use one of suggestions, I’d get $50.

I worked and it work real well. After a year or two I had so many orders, it was humanly impossible to do them all myself. Two things were obvious. First, I really should involve others in naming projects and split the pay with them, and second, I really should not limit myself to Russian shareware community. The whole world is out there. This is how PickyDomains.Com was born.

Now, mind you, I started naming domains way back in 2003 and was registered in late 2006. Nowadays even Google is involved in domain naming (through Prizes.Org) but back then the idea of crowdsourcing naming service was pretty novel. I didn’t even hear the word ‘crowdsourcing’ until much, much later.

How do I market the site that nobody outside a tiny community of Russian shareware programmers (3000 people back then) knows about? Blogs.

Blogs fall into two categories – those you own and those you don’t. If it’s your blog – you can post whatever you want, whenever you want. The more people read you, the better it is. That’s obvious. I already had a rather popular personal blog in Russian, but my prospects were mostly in US and Europe. I didn’t have time for another personal blog, so I started a network of blog ‘aggregators’.

Back then a rather popular idea was creating ‘autoblogs’. Supposedly you’d set your blog to automatically publish RSS feeds by keyword or keyphrase. Like ‘startups’. Your blog would aggregate stories from Google News or Yahoo News that contained word ‘startups’, you’d monetize the traffic through Adsense and what not, and get rich, rich, rich. Joel Comm was one of the sleazebags particularly popular during this ‘Adsense riches’ era. But I knew it would never work and it did not (except for Joel Comm who made millions selling his shitty e-books, but that’s how life works).

Since I loved startups stories, especially about unusual startups, I figured I’d select best stories myself the post them on the blog. My bet was that other people would appreciate the fact that they can come to one place and get their daily fix of cool startup stories. And I was right. It worked quite well. In fact, second generation news aggregators, like Huffington Post and BusinessInsider.Com really did strike it rich (I believe HuffPost was sold for 300+ million dollars).

Of course, my blog network was never that big, but it did achieve its main goal – I’ve had blogs that had several hundred to several thousand daily readers each. You are reading one such blog that remains popular with people and even social networks (posts from NicheGeek get picked up regularly by Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Digg and StumbleUpon).

Famous Chinese saying goes ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best is now.’ This is exactly how I feel about having your own media resources. You’ll need them in the future (and they pay for themselves via commission and ad revenue even when you aren’t using them to promote your projects).

While you may not want to do exactly what I did, when you are just launching something, having own blog, site, news aggregator, social network community or forum where you have maybe only 500 readers can really mean life or death of an idea. These first orders may prove to be really critical, especially psycologically. But since it’s safe to assume that very few people will go out and ‘plant trees’ today, I’ll tell you how I got free publicity from blogs I did not own and control.

That’s going to be in part two.

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