Side Hustle Series: I Build Online Design Sites

(Guest Post by John Shaver, as part of our Side Hustle Series)

As a graphic and web designer by trade, people often present me with “the next big online idea.” The only catch is that they want me to do all the work for free, and then take only half of the profit once it “makes millions.”

I won’t get into all the reasons I turn them down, but the good news is that hearing so many ideas over the years has opened my eyes to what I can accomplish online for myself.

Where it All Started

I used to work an 8-5 job as the sole member of the design/marketing/photography/everything department. Sound familiar? I designed, developed, and ran an e-commerce website for a retailer/wholesaler, and made what most would consider a good living. $70,000 a year was almost unbelievable for a fresh college graduate. Day after day I would check the sales reports. The numbers went up almost faster than my jealousy for the owner (or at least his bank account).

I’m embarrassed to say it, but it took me almost 2 1/2 years of working there before I realized that I was the one that built the website that was raking in millions. What was stopping me from building one for myself? Even if I made 1% of the amount that I was helping this company make, I would be quite satisfied.

Then I quit.

My Side Hustle(s):

Apart from the work I do as a freelance designer for my clients, I have my own projects.

Design PanoplyA design blog with tutorials and articles aimed at graphic designers, Photoshop and Illustrator users in particular. It also includes an online store where I sell stock design resources. The site has been in existence for over two years, but it wasn’t until about six months ago that I decided I wanted to dedicate more time to making it a legitimate business. The graphic design blog niche — if you can call something so big a niche — is extremely competitive, but I know that I can offer a higher quality resource than many of the people already out there.

MyDesignDealsA daily deals site for graphic designers and creative professionals. Daily deals sites are admittedly not a unique idea, but I know the market extremely well, so I see potential for success. I had contemplated building this site for at least a year. I eventually got frustrated thinking about all the income I had missed out on by not taking action, so I sent my wife out of town for a week so I could design and develop the site. Ok, she may have already planned the trip to get away from me, but it makes the story more interesting. A few days later I made my first sale.

There are ups and downs to each website, but that is the beauty of having both. As primarily a blog, Design Panoply brings in a lot more traffic, but the number of sales per visitor is lower. Since MyDesignDeals is set up almost solely to sell deals, the amount of traffic the site gets is lower. Luckily, they complement one another perfectly. I can funnel very targeted traffic from one site to the other, and even run special deals on my own design resources if I am having trouble finding deal providers at any given time. Rather than always having to rely on other blog owners for traffic, I can get guaranteed exposure from my own site while still building my audience through other avenues.

How Much Do I Make?

After I tell you how much I have made from my online escapades, you might think I’m a moron leaving what I previously had. In total, I have made less than $20,000 over the life of my websites. This wouldn’t be all that bad if it weren’t for the huge amount of hours I have put into them. I still make the majority of my money through freelance design work, but that is what I am working to change.

Where others see failure, I see potential.

As I continue to build products and readership for both sites, my annual income will continue to increase. I believe that I can be making a healthy six figures from my sites in the not-too-distant future, and by that point, I will be able to step back from the day to day running of the sites. It’s worth it to start out working 40 hours a week for $10,000 a year if you can end up working 10 hours a week for $100,000+, and that is exactly what I plan on doing.

I feel like I have to make a disclaimer. For me, it’s not about making endless amounts of money, but about the freedom that having more money provides. Time with my family and friends, the ability to travel, eliminating the stress of worrying about bills, and the list goes on.

Things I Learned

Now that you know the background of what I do and how I got there, I want to share the things I learned that will hopefully help you if you are looking into online business. Like J. Money, a lot of ideas pop into my head on a daily basis. When they first hit me, I get excited. Like, Christmas Eve when you are 8-years-old and you just know Santa is going to bring you that remote control car excited.

When I designed and built MyDesignDeals, I basically had no thoughts except that I needed to get the site up as fast as possible. I didn’t consider much of the following:

  • Where will I get visitors?
  • Where will I find deal providers?
  • How many people will buy something?
  • What do people even want?
  • Why is my skin so dry when I use bar soap?

My initial thought was that I needed to have deals up and running to get subscribers and traffic. As it turns out, most of my subscribers and traffic has come from freebies and blog posts used to promote the site, and a lot of deal providers told me to get back in touch when I had a bigger audience.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have spent a few months building my readership, affiliates, and connections before launching the first deal. Having a product is not enough, you need to have access to the right audience as well. No matter how many websites I build, it’s hard to resist the “if you build it they will come” attitude. I get so invested in the idea personally, that I think everyone will be just as stoked as I am. There are two problems with that mindset:

  1. No one will ever be as excited as you are (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is SO true!!)
  2. No one knows about what you are doing unless you find a way to tell them

Keep those two things in mind, and you will avoid a lot of discouragement.

Lastly, I wish I had a partner. Running a blog is hard work. Running two blogs by yourself is even harder. Running two blogs and doing client work to make enough money to pay the bills is absolutely killer. That’s why it’s called a side hustle, not a side…uh…tussle? You know what I mean.

[UPDATE: Since the writing and publishing of the article, I have relaunched MyDesignDeals WITH a partner! Making this wish a reality has been everything I had hoped for, and the site is doing amazingly well after less than 2 weeks of being reopened.]

How To Get Started

If you are looking to get into selling things online, the main thing you need to learn is how to set up your own self-hosted website. (See how my design blog comes in handy?) I use Drupal for most of my projects, but WordPress is a bit easier to set up for most newbies, and has nearly unlimited themes available. The following sequence has been essential for me:

  1. Come up with a product or products you can create (or hire someone else to create) and sell
  2. Set up a website to sell said product(s)
  3. Promote website in any and every way you can

There is obviously more to each step, but by breaking everything down, it all seems a little less overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a lot of time and hard work. If you expect this going into it, you will more easily see the light at the end of the tunnel. It isn’t easy, but it is simple. In my experience, the hardest part is promotion. If I wanted to, I could set up at least 5 websites in a single day, but building readership and connecting with customers is a whole different story.

What’s Next?

Who knows? Maybe someday soon I can turn my side hustle(s) into my primary source of income. The point is to work hard now so you won’t have to until the day you die.

Have you had a similar experience to mine? What are the great ideas you have had but never done anything about? What other questions do you have about making money online?

John Shaver is the creator of MyDesignDeals, a daily deals site for graphic designers and creative professionals. He also owns and runs the graphic design blog, Design Panoply, and is the author of “The 101 Dos and Don’ts of a Successful Graphic Designer”.

** Have a side hustle of your own? Tell us about it!

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  1. Ian October 4, 2012 at 6:31 AM

    One of my side hustles is VERY similar to this. It’s a design blog too about free website templates and occasional other freebies.

    Notoriously, they are very hard to monetise because of the “freebie-chasers” but if you have good products and build a following it can work very well.

    I love the idea of MDD though – could be hugely successful. Running two blogs is tough, deffo! I run ~4 at the moment with newsletters, blog posts, reader emails etc AND my 9-5 gig.

    This is how I look at it: most people get home and watch TV for 4 hours and go to bed. I go home, and hustle from 10pm-12/1am on my sites before getting up again at 6.

    In the end, I’ll have an awesome business that I can pay other people to run for me.

    Great side hustle, John. Best of luck with your sites!

  2. Lance @ Money Life and More October 4, 2012 at 7:16 AM

    My side hustle is my blog. It has been a very interesting journey but has been picking up speed lately. I’m really trying to grow my readership and recently have been doing so by reaching out to new audiences via guest posts. I still have a long way to go but in the end I think it’ll be worth it. Plus, it is fun and I’m helping people!

  3. Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies October 4, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    Drupal? I’ve never had the pleasure of drupal, but have heard enough people complain about it that I tip my hat to you for using it. But, I guess you’re a professional at this, so you would be good with it =)

  4. Michelle October 4, 2012 at 8:17 AM

    What a very interesting side hustle! My side hustle is my blog and staff writing.

  5. John Shaver October 4, 2012 at 12:24 PM

    Thanks J. Money for hosting and this, and thanks to everyone who has commented. I’ll respond to each of you!

    First, I’d like to add that since the writing and publishing of the article, I have relaunched MyDesignDeals WITH a partner! Making this wish a reality has been everything I had hoped for, and the site is doing amazingly well after less than 2 weeks of being reopened.

    With that said, if you have a wish or dream and think it’s too late to make a reality, slap yourself! Success is built on weeding out bad ideas, and to do that you must try and fail until you find the ones that work!

    – John Shaver

  6. John Shaver October 4, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    Ian – I agree with you about “freebie chasers”. Some people visit the site or subscribe just for freebies (we offer free access to a massive Designer Toolbox full of freebies if you subscribe).

    This used to bug me, but it’s inevitable without making access to freebies a hassle for legitimate customers, so it’s worth losing a few subscribers over it.

    I couldn’t agree more about hustling when most people are watching TV. We haven’t had cable in over a year and my productivity has improved for sure. :)

    I’m curious as to what your sites are!

    – John Shaver

  7. John Shaver October 4, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    Lance – Guest posts can be a good way to get more readers and exposure. It works better in some niches than others.

    In the design world, there are TONS of guest bloggers and people handing out freebies, so we had to come up with a unique selling point to differentiate ourselves from others.

    I’ve learned 2 things from this:

    1. Setting yourself far apart from the norm in your niche is invaluable.
    2. Transparency and REAL value are key

    – John Shaver

  8. John Shaver October 4, 2012 at 12:30 PM

    Mrs. Pop – Drupal is my favorite CMS. WordPress is much more popular in terms of the sheer quantity of websites using it, but in many professional web developers opinions, it is much more expandable.

    WordPress can quicker for a basic blog and easier for unfamiliar developers, but Drupal is my go-to CMS for advanced features. Definitely worth learning both. :)

    – John Shaver

  9. John Shaver October 4, 2012 at 12:31 PM

    Michelle – I’d love to check out your blog if you wanted to post it :)

    Finding a way to monetize blogs can be tough, but I’ve always found an “ah-ha” moment that changed everything.

    – John Shaver

  10. John Shaver October 4, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    Jenna – Thanks for checking it out.

    The first step is coming up with the idea. Good luck in the future!

    Working for yourself can be very fulfilling, even outside the financial gains.

    – John Shaver

  11. debtgirl October 4, 2012 at 1:31 PM

    I do some Computer Support on the side, but I really hate it. I hate working on PCs. But it does give me a few extra bucks if I decide to do it. But it is so rare anymore.

    Come fix my website/blog! ;-)

  12. Marie at FamilyMoneyValues October 4, 2012 at 2:06 PM

    I’m retired, but work all day and night on my 3 sites, 1 blog and posts for 3 other blogs. I just can’t keep up!!! So, I alternate and am starting to outsource some of it.

  13. John Shaver October 4, 2012 at 2:25 PM

    debtgirl – Computer support can be tough. Most of the time it’s people who have no clue about computers and have managed to take 20 wrong steps to making things worse, haha.

    What’s wrong with your blog? If there’s a problem I’d be happy to try and help.

    – John Shaver

  14. John Shaver October 4, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    Marie – I know what you mean about keeping up with blogs :-/

    It can be fun and rewarding, but sometimes it’s so tough and time consuming it can be demoralizing.

    Keep up the good work!

    – John Shaver

  15. Veronica @ Pelican on Money October 4, 2012 at 11:00 PM

    Website and work looks awesome! Have you tried selling your designs on Envato marketplace? Their top wordpress theme developers take home over a quarter million dollars.

  16. J. Money October 5, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    Thanks again, John! And congrats on finding that biz partner of yours – it DOES make a difference so much! Without my man Nate there’s no way we would have launched (or have been as successful as we were), our charity project Love Drop last year. Makes an incredible difference, so I’m glad to hear you guys are connected :)

    @Ian – “This is how I look at it: most people get home and watch TV for 4 hours and go to bed. I go home, and hustle from 10pm-12/1am on my sites before getting up again at 6.” — YES!!! Very productive – I love it!!

    @Marie at FamilyMoneyValues – It DOES get overwhelming at times. Every now and then I have to sit back and really ask myself which of my projects are truly important to me at the end of the day and try and weed out the others… We can’t always limit them to our “perfect world” scenario (esp if your income depends on it!), but hopefully over time it would eventually lead to that :) In the meantime we just keep on hustlin’!

  17. John Shaver October 5, 2012 at 1:08 PM

    Veronica – I do have a DesignPanoply store on Envato. It is a small chunk of money each month, especially since I don’t sell exclusively so the commission is only 33%.

    I honestly don’t enjoy developing WordPress sites, but you’re right, a lot of them make some REALLY good money on it. I swear the top selling WordPress theme has made over $1 million!

    – John Shaver

  18. debtgirl October 5, 2012 at 1:39 PM

    JS, nothing really wrong with my blog, it’s new and works for me! ;-) I need to get a domain, but for now, I will keep it at WordPress. It’s free!
    You are right, its the 20 steps later that users do that make my life miserable! ;-(

  19. John Shaver October 5, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    debtgirl – Sounds goo then!

    I hope those computer illiterate people cut you a break, lol.

    – John Shaver

  20. Lika February 18, 2015 at 2:51 PM

    Hi i am a high school student and i found many opportunities on the freelancing and designing websites but i don’t know how to do web design, plus most services ask that you create the website and design it rather than do a wordpress account for them. could you help me please