Selecting a topic for my first web site

I decided that I want to focus on making money online by providing information that is supported by ad revenue. My next step, then, is to determine exactly what kind of information. There are a number of criteria I need to consider.

Picking a topic that I enjoy

This probably goes without saying, but if I’m going to stick with something, I’m going to need to enjoy it. Building a web site is going to have enough challenges as it is without hating its topic. So the first criteria I’ll use to narrow my focus is to narrow possible topics down to those that I actually like.

Of course there’s lots of things I like, and picking just one is a bit hard. In no particular order, I enjoy archeology, astronomy, international travel, personal finance, technology, Buddhism, scuba diving, and teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL, also called ESL or EFL). That’s a pretty wide range!

To simplify things, I’m going to pick one where I feel I have an above average level of personal knowledge. I taught English overseas for a number of years, so this feels like a strong contender. I’ve also put together a few aborted web sites centered on this topic, so this won’t be completely unchartered territory.

I don’t plan to limit myself to one topic forever, but to get started, I need to focus my energies in a single direction. I’m going to tuck away the other areas for future consideration, and will likely pursue some of them as well in the future.

Narrowing the topic to a manageable niche

Now that I know the high level topic, I need to figure out a way to narrow it down even further. I suppose I could try to create some sort of super site that is all things to all people, but that seems a bit overwhelming. Also, there’s a lot of competition out there on the web these days, and if I’m going to have any hope of standing out, I need to pick a niche and pursue it.

From time time in my corporate life, I have wistfully remembered my days spent teaching English overseas. It was a great period of my life. At the end, I spent nearly five years pursuing it as a profession, teaching in such places as Prague, Istanbul and Taipei. When I move back to the States and got married, though, I decided I wanted to pursue something a little more stable and financially rewarding. It was the definitely the right choice, and one I don’t regret.

One of the ways I’ve scratched my nostalgic itch over the yeas has been to visit a number of sites that advertise overseas jobs teaching English. A few of them charge the schools for listings, while the majority make the listings free but place ads on the pages. My main challenge will be connecting with two audiences: teachers and schools. I’ll need to spend a lot of time discovering how to cost effectively market to those communities.

So, I’ve decided to launch a international job site for ESL teachers. I hope it will be a good first niche to pursue!

Choosing a method to earn money online

As I understand it, whether it’s online or offline, there are basically just a few basic ways to earn an income: selling a product, selling a service, or selling information. All of them share things in common. At the end of the day, though, no matter which path I choose, I still have to provide something of value.

That implies a group of people–customers–that have needs. That need can either be something that already exists, like needing to eat, or something that is more or less manufactured, like the need to have an iPod. The good news is that just as before iPods existed, people didn’t realize they needed them, other types of needs can be created as well.

I’m going to consider the different ways to earn money online before choosing one to pursue initially. I’ll probably try them all at some point, but for now I need to sort out where to start.

Earning money online by selling a product

This one seems obvious, and of course it has the potential to be successful. Just look at Amazon.com. A good friend of mine from college has done just this on a much smaller scale for a number of years, and is doing quite well. He has very low overhead, and has pretty much outsourced everything. He has all of his products drop shipped directly from distributors, so he doesn’t even have to deal with the costs and hassles of carrying an inventory. It seems like a pretty good strategy.

As I see it, though, there are a lot of downsides, the chief among them the logistical issues of shipping a physical product to the four corners of the world. And of course there’s customer service and support. One aspect of my friend’s business that I don’t envy is he is quite literally chained to it pretty much every single day. He’s a small business owner, and without him, the business doesn’t function. From a lifestyle perspective, I’m not sure this would be the best fit for what I’m trying to accomplish.

Earning money online by selling a service

The flip side of selling a product is selling a service, a key distinction of course being that shipping, inventory and other things related to handling a physical product are no longer a worry. Ebay is a great example (looking at it from their perspective, not that of its customers). In the past I’ve been involved as both a buyer and seller of online services, and the business model can be pretty compelling. Especially with the ability to outsource work to lower cost parts of the world, a great deal of can be accomplished for a relatively low cost. From what I can tell, it seems a lot of folks are pursuing this method.

The negative of course is that there is still very much a business that needs to be run. Customer disputes need to be resolved. Assuming the business isn’t a one person show, the people performing the work need to be managed. And unless the service is pretty much cookie cutter, spitting out exactly the same thing time after time, then you also have to get into negotiating price, scope and delivery dates for each and every job. This method isn’t one I would like to pursue.

Earning money online by selling information

The final method is to sell information online, the business model pursued by the online edition of The Wall Street Journal. I actually subscribe to it, and while it costs about $100 a year, I find I read it almost every day and really learn a lot from it. I have no idea how many active subscribers they have, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t profitable.

A twist on this model involves providing the information for free, but having some alternate means to make money. The free newspapers available in cities around the world survive solely on their ad revenue. Judging by the popularity of online advertising on a lot of the sites I visit regularly, this is a popular approach.

The downside of this approach is that you actually have to create original content. For lots of people that wouldn’t be very attractive. As I actually enjoy writing, though, it seems like a good fit. Of course like all of the other methods, earning money online by providing free information subsidized by ad revenue will require ongoing effort. As my grandmother was fond of saying, there’s no free lunch!