What do you think people get hung up on the most when they want to start a business? It’s not marketing, and it’s not getting clients.
It’s finding their perfect idea.
This is especially true for creatives like writers or musicians. After all, “I’m a writer” and “I make tons of money” don’t often appear in the same sentence.
But the truth is, there’s never been a better time to make money as a creative. And you don’t have to write a best-selling novel or license a photograph for a million bucks. You can launch a business that turns your skills into a steady source of income.
It all starts with a unique online business idea, systematically tested to make sure there’s a market for your product or service.
Let’s take a look at three writers who came up with their successful online business ideas, plus what you can learn from them.
Online business idea #1: Get Storied
Michael Margolis was fascinated by a single question: How do we effectively communicate big ideas to large groups of people?
As a cultural anthropology scholar, he knew he had the knowledge and passion to find the answer. You can call these his “X-Men Abilities” — his particular mix of knowledge, skills, and experiences 100% unique to him.
We all have our own X-Men Abilities — skills that people will pay great money for. Margolis just had to figure out how to turn his into a business.
He landed on Get Storied, which helps businesses tell their stories and humanize their brands. Specifically, he offers a suite of in-person training and coaching courses, including narrative consults and corporate events. He also set up StoryU to provide online courses and generate passive income.
In the demand matrix of business models, Margolis chose the coaching and courses: the two that can help you make a high profit quickly at a low cost.
Results: Helping game-changing companies tell their stories
Get Storied now helps thousands of people each month get their stories straight. The company has even advised organizations such as NASA, TEDx, SXSW, and Zappos.
One testimonial from a head marketer at Bloomberg points to the effectiveness of the Get Storied business model:
“There was an ‘aha’ moment for every attendee! Michael helped us improve the value propositions we use to speak to our client’s unique needs and desires. Our senior sales leaders gave the day top ratings and left with immediate skills they can use.”
By hosting these in-person training sessions, Margolis was able to give his clients the tools they needed to tell their stories and humanize their brands — and they were willing to pay for it.
The takeaway: Tie your products to a core message
Margolis could’ve just told companies, “I’ll help you polish your presentation deck” and left it at that. Sure, it’s a decent offering, but it doesn’t really differentiate him from the next guy. It’s also not scalable, and probably won’t command a higher price tag.
In order to generate desire for your brand, you need to look beyond just your product. Take Whole Foods. Yes, they’re selling groceries. But they’re also selling a healthy, organic lifestyle, and the idea that if you shop there, you’re taking care of yourself and your body.
That’s why Margolis used his passion for stories to take his business proposition to the next level.
With Get Storied, it’s not just about writing a good executive summary; it’s about tapping into the history of storytelling and how people communicate. It’s about helping brands distill their messages into one engaging story, and providing the tools they need to tell that story to key audiences. That distinction turned Margolis’s idea into a truly unique one.
Online business idea #2: Book in a Box
Book in a Box is an antidote to the slow and outdated traditional publishing industry. It provides a quick and easy way for people to turn their ideas into books and then share them with the world. And it was all started by bestselling author Tucker Max a.k.a. “King of ‘Fratire.’”
For years, entrepreneurs asked Max how they could write and publish a book without going through the normal, painstaking process of… well, writing and publishing a book. He’d always brushed them off with a remark about having to put in the hard work. That is, until he realized maybe there was a way to streamline this process. And he could be the one to do it.
Now, he sells a six-step service that helps people get their books out there in just six months. All the entrepreneur has to do is conduct in-depth interviews with the company’s team. And then Book in a Box takes the reigns to outline, draft, edit, publish, and market the book — consulting with the client every step of the way.
Results: Earning $200K in two months
Book in a Box earned $200K in its first two months, prompting Max to write that he was embarrassed by the success. Why? Because he should’ve — and could’ve — started this business sooner.
Having followed up with $2.5 million in sales in 2015, the company has already signed almost 300 authors and sent over 70 books to market. Many of those have landed on bestseller lists, generated New York Times profiles, and boosted rates for consulting deals.
For example, entrepreneur Stephan Aarstol’s book, The Five Hour Workday, was profiled in Forbes and Fast Company. And The Huffington Post created a Facebook video about his concept, which generated over four million views.
The takeaway: Solve a real problem — and get out of your own way
No product is too weird, as long as it solves a real problem, and as long as people are willing to pay to have that problem solved for them. Just look at Doggles (goggles for dogs) and Throx (sets of three socks for the one that gets lost). They sound kind of ridiculous, but they address a common need, and therefore make money.
Similarly, once Max realized there was demand for this service, he knew he had a success on his hands.
“This makes me wonder how much of being an entrepreneur is really learning the ‘skills,’” he wrote. “I think this has much more to do with a mindset … That might be the ultimate key to all entrepreneurship: it’s not about you, it’s about what you’re doing to solve problems.”
Online business idea #3: FundsforWriters
While speaking at a women’s writing group in March 2000, mystery novel writer C. Hope Clark found herself fielding questions about how to find funds for writing projects. With a background in finance, she was able to offer advice that her audience couldn’t get enough of. Soon after, her talk turned into an email thread, which then turned into a newsletter, and eventually, a whole business. Again, there’s that demand.
As Clark told me, “I entered the business when I realized that I had knowledge that wasn’t being disseminated elsewhere.”
She saw a hole in her niche that wasn’t being filled, and she filled it. Just like the founders of Dollar Shave Club did. After realizing there was no great alternative to expensive brands like Gillette, they started a business that delivers affordable razors to your door on a regular basis. And in just five years, they sold the company to Unilever for $1 billion.
To complement her free weekly newsletter, Clark offers a biweekly, paid subscription newsletter with updates about 70+ high-quality grants, competitions, freelance markets, and writing jobs that pay at least 10 cents per word.
“I used to have four different newsletters, and now I have two,” Clark said. “My writing income comes from multi-directions, and admittedly I’ve tried so many different things along the way. Trial and error is highly educational.”
Results: An audience of over 40,000 readers
Clark’s free newsletter boasts an audience of over 40,000 readers, making her a trusted source for writers who need funding and better-paying jobs. For the past 17 years in a row, her website has even been chosen as one of Writer’s Digest’s best writing websites.
To help fund this venture, she sells ad space in her newsletters to organizations that offer writing services. This model works so well that Clark has sold out her ad space through June of next year.
The takeaway: Be the go-to resource for your niche
Clark doesn’t just stop at providing information about funding, where some competitors might draw the line. She covers much more ground by offering updates on freelance markets, notable competitions, new agents, job openings, and even some motivational advice.
“From the beginning, I strived for customer service, too, something sorely lacking in so many arenas,” Clark said. “Caring about my readers, I worked to aid them, knowing that if I treated them well, they’d respect me as a business.”
When readers subscribe, they know they’re getting everything they need in one email. This comprehensive coverage takes Clark’s service from just a helpful newsletter to a fully fledged business and center for thought leadership.
Finding your unique business idea
Writing has a bad reputation as a poorly paid craft, but that doesn’t have to be the case. More and more writers are finding new and innovative ways to build thriving businesses doing what they love. In fact, it’s never been easier to make the transition from struggling writer to successful entrepreneur.
You just have to nail down that unique online business idea. And you can start with this simple checklist:
- Make sure you’re solving a problem that people would pay to get help with
- Tie your products to a core message
- Be the go-to resource for your key audience
- And for goodness sake, get out of your own way
As you continue to test your ideas in the market, it’ll become easier to find the ones that are truly unique and ultimately profitable.